Lawmakers push bills on casinos, keno
By ALLIE MORRIS
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
(Published in print: Wednesday, February 18, 2015)
(Published in print: Wednesday, February 18, 2015)
Lawmakers are again pushing a plan to license two casinos in New Hampshire as a way to boost state revenues without taxing residents.
“Why do we need this piece of legislation? We need jobs . . . we need capital,” said the bill’s sponsor,
Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, at a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee yesterday.
The legislation is similar to a bill D’Allesandro proposed last year and is backed by Senate Republican and Democratic leaders. It would establish two casinos in the state with initial licensing fees of $80 million and $40 million. The casinos would be overseen by a new gambling commission.
One casino would have up to 160 table games and 3,500 slot machines, and the other up to 80 table games and 1,500 slot machines. The license would be subject to renewal after 10 years, and any casino would need local approval before it could move into town.
Money from casino revenues would be divvied up between host communities and counties, abutting towns and a problem gambling fund. Roughly $25 million would go to revenue sharing, providing property tax relief to each city and town in the state.
“That has a dramatic effect on every community,” said D’Allesandro, of Manchester.
The expanded gambling proposal faces opposition from some who argue casinos tarnish New Hampshire’s brand and are an unreliable source of revenue.
Steve Duprey, representing Casino Free New Hampshire and Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, equated casino gambling to the “crack cocaine” of legislative funding.
“One is never enough,” he said, adding that the revenues go up and down. “Once hooked, no state ever gives up on it.”
Gov. Maggie Hassan did not include casino revenue in her recently revealed budget proposal, unlike two years ago, when she banked on $80 million from expanded gambling. She did, however, include revenue from keno, an electronic lottery game, in her current budget plan.
Hassan said yesterday she is still supportive of bringing one casino to New Hampshire, but did not say whether she would sign off on a bill that authorizes two.
“I continue to believe that one high-end casino would make sense for our state,” she told lawmakers at a hearing on her budget proposal yesterday. “But I am also a realist, and I think that the Legislature has shown some skepticism to it, so I didn’t include it in this budget.”
The Senate passed casino legislation in the last session, but it was killed in the House, which has never passed a casino bill.
Expanded gambling has a long history in the State House, and D’Allesandro has testified on a casino bill more than a dozen times, he said.
“My hair is grayer, I am a little older, but the needs are still there,” he said.
But some argued the case for a New Hampshire casino has actually worsened in years past.
Connecticut and Rhode Island are already home to casinos. Massachusetts passed expanded gambling in 2011 and recently licensed a $1.6 billion casino resort set to open in Revere within the next few years.
“That is going to be a destination casino and relegate casinos in New Hampshire to essentially local casinos,” Duprey said.
D’Allesandro pushed back on the notion. “At a time when our sister state is gearing up . . . the question is, can we be competitive with Massachusetts, with Rhode Island? I say absolutely.”
Another piece of the puzzle is keno. In her budget proposal, Hassan included $26 million in revenue from bringing the lottery game to New Hampshire. The House last year passed a proposal to establish keno, but the Senate killed it.
Rep. Lynne Ober, a Hudson Republican, is proposing a bill this session that would establish keno in the state. The House Ways and Means Committee yesterday heard testimony on the legislation, which is estimated to raise roughly $12 million in state revenue.
Bars and restaurants that serve liquor, but not convenience stores, would be able to run the game, said sponsor Rep. Patrick Abrami, a Stratham Republican.
The license would cost $500 per year and licensees could operate the game between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m, according to the legislation.
“The reason I like this is that the money stays in the state, unlike casino gambling where a lot of money goes to big conglomerates,” Abrami said.
Massachusetts began offering keno in 1993, and last year the game generated roughly $179 million in state revenue, according to the Massachusetts State Lottery. About 3 percent of that represents New Hampshire players, said Charles McIntyre, executive director of the New Hampshire Lottery. The keno bill would expand the state lottery to 250 new locations, he said.
WHEN ANY STATE MAKES AN ARGUMENT ABOUT REVENUE FLOWING ACROSS ITS BORDERS, ONE MUST CONSIDER THE FACTS.
MASSACHUSETTS RESIDENTS BUY LIQUOR, CIGARETTES AND OTHER ITEMS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE TO AVOID THE MASSACHUSETTS SALES TAX.
Some raised concerns about addiction. “As we expand forms of gambling, it’s likely to increase the number of people who end up with a problem,” said Lebanon resident Clifton Below at the House hearing, where turnout was far lower than the Senate’s hearing on casinos.
Hassan wouldn’t say what she would do if both a keno and a casino proposal landed on her desk.
“What I know is six of the 10 most profitable Massachusetts keno sites are within 5 miles of the New Hampshire border, and lots of people in New Hampshire go to other states to gamble at casinos,” she said. “It’s always made sense to me to take the revenue that we’re already generating from New Hampshire citizens and bring it home.”