$75M bet at NH's mini casinos for charity while fight rages over legalizing commercial casino
SALEM, New Hampshire — As New Hampshire debates legalizing a commercial casino, the charities that rely on games of chance to raise millions of dollars every year worry that a big-name gambling hall would siphon off crucial revenue for the services they provide.
The 35 percent payout to charities after deducting prizes ranges from a few thousand dollars from a poker room operating three days a week to more than $60,000 from 10 days at Rockingham Park racetrack in Salem.
Wentworth-Coolidge Commission Co-chairwoman Gene Doherty says other fundraising efforts pale compared to the $37,744 the commission raised last year at Rockingham Park.
"A lot of fundraising dried up over the years. People want to give to children or the elderly," not to the upkeep of a historic building, Doherty said.
Gambling proceeds comprise 80 percent of the commission's budget, Doherty said.
"If it goes away, we will do some fundraising, but a lot of the support the state gets from us also will go away," she said.
New Hampshire has allowed the mini-casino operations since 1977 — often called Monte Carlo nights — with few limits other than on the size of the bet and the maximum days a charity can sponsor an event. Unlike commercial casinos, the maximum bet is $4, regulations aren't as stringent and video slot machines are illegal though some operators provide them as game machines that pay out prizes instead of cash.
A commission is drafting legislation to regulate casinos and casino bills are likely to arise in both houses of the legislature. A vote could come in 2014.
A law change in 2006 allowed private operators to run the games and turned the traditional Monte Carlo nights into seven-day-a-week, full-scale operations that rake in millions of dollars annually.
When the law first changed, game operators had to entice charities to sign up for game dates. Now, most have waiting lists, and state officials estimate $75 million is bet annually in the name of 389 charities.
The panel working on casino regulations also is considering a separate bill to tighten regulations governing charitable games of chance. Paul Kelley, director of the Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission, said if a commercial casino is approved, charities — especially in the southern part of the state where a casino is most likely — will feel the pinch.
One of the smaller participating charities is the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Manchester.
Sister Jacqueline Brodeur is in charge of raising money to support 103 older nuns and the nursing home that cares for many of them. The sisters receive $6,000 from gambling at Oceanfront Gaming at Hampton Beach — a "blip" in the budget, Brodeur says, but one that supplements the sisters' care and a small program in Manchester to teach English to immigrants.
Like Rockingham, Oceanfront Gaming scatters each charity's 10 dates throughout the year to give everyone some of the higher volume days.
"You always pray for a lot of summer dates. That's when people are at the beach, so you pray for summer," Brodeur said.
At Rockingham Park, the 36 charities with game dates there average $55,000 a year in profit from 10 days of gambling, the maximum days the state allows per charity. Rockingham, a potential site for a commercial casino, is the most profitable of the dozen game operators, paying 36 charities almost $2 million in fiscal 2013 — nearly half the $4.6 million charities received statewide from gambling.
Even though 190 charities are on Rockingham's waiting list, Brodeur is going to try to get in.
"We've got to look into it in order to survive," she said.
Arthur McLean, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Derry, waited five years to get gambling dates at Rockingham. Last year, the club had four dates and raised about $20,000. This year, he expects to raise $50,000 toward its $1 million annual budget. It's not its biggest fundraiser, but if gambling revenue is cut off, McLean said programs would be reduced.
"We would lose employees. We have to keep our building open," he said.