NH lawmakers: Legalize gambling, no gas tax hike

Proponents say casino could help NH avoid gas tax hike; opponents say find another way

Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Sponsors of a Senate bill to legalize casino gambling in New Hampshire said Tuesday they hope the state's share of gaming revenue will pay for planned highway improvements and make it unnecessary to raise the gas tax.

New Hampshire has toyed with the idea of casino gambling for many years. While gambling proposals have passed the Senate on several occasions, none has ever passed the House.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports the proposal and last week presented a two-year budget that incorporates $80 million in casino licensing fees, said waiting to legalize casino gambling will allow neighboring Massachusetts to take gambling revenue from New Hampshire residents, while New Hampshire pays the social costs. Massachusetts legalized casino gambling in 2011 and will eventually award licenses for a slots parlor and three casinos.

Opponents of the New Hampshire bill say the timeline for licensing a casino in the state is rushed, though Hassan disagreed, saying the proposal is workable and would bring thousands of jobs to the state.

They also say casino gambling is out of step with New Hampshire's character and would divert money away from existing industries and businesses. The bill leaves the door open for additional casinos and expanded gaming in the future.

"Gambling is the wrong solution to ensure economic security and increase jobs," said State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth.

Fuller Clark said she believes much of the $80 million included in the governor's proposed budget could come through increasing other fees and taxes, which is how the state has traditionally raised revenue.

The House is considering increasing the gas tax from 18 to 30 cents to pay for highway improvements, including widening Interstate 93, but State Sen. Jim Rausch, one of the gambling bill's sponsors, said he believes a casino would make that unnecessary.

The bill would legalize 5,000 video lottery machines and 150 table games at one casino that would be regulated by the Lottery Commission with additional oversight from the attorney general's office and a new gaming enforcement unit within the state police.

The state would get 30 percent of the net income from video lottery games and 14 percent from table games. 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 gaming revenue would all go to higher education. The sponsors estimate a casino would generate $130 million in revenue a year.

An amendment by the chief sponsors — Sens. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, Jim Rauch, R-Derry, and Chuck Morse, R-Salem — says the highway funds must first be used to widen I-93, then for other highway and bridge projects.

Any applicant would pay a $500,000 nonrefundable application fee to the Lottery Commission and $100,000 to the attorney general's office for a background check in addition to the $80 million license fee included in the governor's budget. The license would be good for 10 years and could be renewed for $1.5 million. Any licensee would be required to invest $425 million in their chosen venue.

If the bill is passed, the one license will be awarded by the Lottery Commission and the licensing process would be completed in just under a year from the date of passage.

The House is considering two gambling bills, one that would allow a casino in the North Country and one in a county bordering Massachusetts.

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