The debate over whether to bring casino gambling to New Hampshire – and the eventual rejection of any such proposal – has become an annual tradition of sorts at the Statehouse.
Year after year, lawmakers have shot down bills that would legalize casinos, though sometimes by the slimmest of margins; a proposal in 2014 lost in the House by just one vote.
But that history isn’t stopping state Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a longtime casino proponent.
The Manchester Democrat has put forth a proposal to authorize two casinos in the state, which he estimates could bring in as much as $195 million a year in annual revenue to the state.
That bill is slated for a hearing this morning before the Senate Ways and Means committee.
Governor Chris Sununu said during the campaign that he’s open to casino gambling under the right circumstances, though he didn’t specify what that would look like.
Sen. D’Allesandro spoke to NHPR’s Morning Edition about his latest proposal.
Casino bills have typically died in the House, but even the state Senate last year rejected your proposal. Why do you think the outcome would be different this year?
I think the situation is different in this context. We now have a situation where Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all have gaming enterprises, and they’re full blown. They’re taking New Hampshire money, they’re taking a lot of New Hampshire money, and New Hampshire people are moving in that direction to do what they like to do. It’s an option. If they like to gamble, they have a place to go. So my question is why aren’t they doing it in New Hampshire, where for more than 100 years, we had horseracing at Rockingham Park. It was a wonderful venue. People gravitated there from all over New England. We’re the first state in the United States to have a lottery, 36 others states have followed suit. So why can’t we get this passed in New Hampshire now? I can’t figure it out, to be honest with you. It’s a mystery to me. We have introduced this time after time after time. And I say to those who are in opposition: what are you doing to produce revenue? What are you doing to create jobs? What are you doing to give a stimulus to the economy of New Hampshire?
Can you run through some of the details of your bill? Is there anything different from what’s been proposed in the past?
Well, every bill’s a little different because you’re trying to satisfy a constituency. This bill offers two licenses, they’re wide open and anybody can bid on them. A Category 1 license is $80 million; the Category 2 license is $40 million. The A license is a little bit larger than the B license. The tax rate is still 35 percent. Both venues offer table games as well as the slot machines. The distribution formula is a little bit different. We restore revenue sharing. It’s been suspended for a number of bienniums, so we’ll give back to communities $25.2 million on an annual basis. I don’t know how anybody can be opposed to that.
This is one of those rare issues where you see support and opposition on both sides of the aisle. Are there possible areas of compromise to bring those sides together that haven’t been explored in the past?
There are always areas of compromise. This bill has been adjusted 19 times in the last 19 years, so we’ve tried to compromise. You try to compromise as much as you. The distribution formula has always been a problem, so you compromise on the distribution formula. The fact that if you designate one location, you’re going to make certain people rich, so what you do is you open it to a competitive bidding process. The tax rate is not high enough, the tax rate is too low, so you try to get the middle ground as far as that’s concerned. People complain that they won’t invest enough money, so you put an investment deal in. You have to invest $450 million on a Category 1, you’ve got to invest $150 million on a Category 2, exclusive of the land.
The former site at Rockingham Park in Salem is now out of the picture, with that property being sold recently. That had been seen as the most likely site for a casino, so does that change the conversation at all? Are there other locations where you think this could work?
Your initial statement is absolutely correct. Rockingham would have been perfect. Rockingham wanted it, the people of Salem wanted it. Are there other sites? Absolutely.
Do you have some other potential sites you could share?
The situation in Loudon, the racetrack in Loudon is another perfect location. There are other locations along the border that would be applicable at this point in time.
There seems to be a general sense in Concord that state finances are in good shape; revenues are ahead of budget, there’s talk of a surplus. Doesn’t that lack of a financial crisis make casinos a harder sell?
Well, a casino bill has always been a tough sell, regardless of whether you have money or you don’t have money. It’s a wonderful thing to have a surplus, but how about funding things that need to be funded? There are a number of things that are underfunded. We’re looking at a deficit in Health and Human Services that could be as much as $65 million, so there’s always a need for revenue and we like to produce revenue in a non-taxing fashion. This is an opportunity for that to happen at a time in a place when it’s absolutely appropriate.
For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction to expanded gaming is the social situation. We’re going cause this or we’re going to cause that. We already have charitable gaming in the state at a rate of about $200 million, and the state gets very little in terms of revenue.
So you don’t give a lot of credence to the opposition, people who see this as a moral issue, or people who don’t want the state to be a destination for expanded gambling? People who say the tourism industry’s done well without it?
Well, Las Vegas does pretty well with gambling and it hasn’t hurt the tourism industry there.
I would venture to guess a lot of Granite Staters don’t want to become Las Vegas.
A lot of Granite Staters want to remain what it is, and that’s why for 100 years we had racing at Rockingham Park. A lot of people didn’t want horseracing at Rockingham Park, but it represented about 7 percent of the operating budget when it was up and going.