CONCORD, N.H. -- The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill legalizing construction of one casino in New Hampshire, but the bill faces a more difficult test in the House which has repeatedly rejected similar gambling legislation.
The bill to legalize up to 5,000 video slots and 150 table games passed 16-8, with bipartisan support from nine Democrats and seven Republicans.
Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, had opposed expanded gambling during two terms in the House, but was among a number of senators to have a change of heart.
"This vote for me is not about whether in some hypothetical vision of New Hampshire I like or dislike gambling," he said. "This vote is about ... a state that needs education funding, aid to municipalities and a crucial transportation system for economic development."
Watters and others argue that if New Hampshire wants to keep the comparative advantage that comes with having no income or sales tax, then a casino is the only viable revenue option to address the state’s needs.
"Without this revenue and without beginning to restore the devastating cuts of the last budget, we will risk falling behind economically," said Gov. Maggie Hassan in a statement.
Hassan included $80 million in licensing fees in her budget to pressure lawmakers to approve a casino. She warned House lawmakers that if New Hampshire doesn’t act to legalize a casino the state will lose $75 million each year to Massachusetts, which recently legalized three casinos and a slots parlor.
But don’t bet on the House going along easily. Though the state Senate has passed casino legislation in the past, the House has never endorsed video slots.
One House committee already recommended killing two measures that would allow more than the single casino Hassan says she will support. Though the bills are not identical to the Senate bill, opponents hope to send the Senate a message.
Opponents object to Hassan including money in her budget from licensing fees before lawmakers agreed to legalize a casino and argue that expanded gaming is not an appropriate revenue source for New Hampshire.
Former Gov. John Lynch squelched gambling supporters’ efforts during his eight years in office by questioning how it would affect quality of life. He threatened to veto a bill last year that would have legalized four casinos; that bill died in the House.
Critics have also argued that the quick licensing process will favor Rockingham Park. Millennium Gaming Inc. of Las Vegas already has an option to buy the Salem racetrack and proposed spending $450 million building a facility there. Salem residents have overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding referendum endorsing the plan.
Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon have also pushed for casino legalization.
Hassan has made it clear to gambling supporters that all she will back is one high-end, highly regulated casino.
The Senate proposal would tax the video slot proceeds at 30 percent and table games at 14 percent. It would require a $425 million investment.
Five percent of the video lottery revenue would go to the host community, neighboring communities and services for problem gambling. The rest would be used to fund highway improvements, higher education and North Country development. The table game revenue would go to higher education.