Distant Dome: All Not Lost for Gambling in NH

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By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

For years, casino gambling has been touted as a potential new revenue source for the state without the dreaded words “new tax.”

At one time, public hearings on casino gambling bills perpetually sponsored by Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, would fill Representatives Hall with all-day debates on their virtues and follies.

Over the years, casino gambling has had its supporters in the corner office, former Govs. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, but to date has failed to ever pass the House.

And several years ago when Hassan proposed casino gambling to help fund her first proposed budget, a commission was created to parse the issues, spending the summer and into the fall developing a sophisticated plan for implementation, regulation and remediation for problem gamblers only to see the yeomen’s work go down in flames in the House.

Garry Rayno

During those heady times, lobbyists on both sides of the issue made enough money for frequent trips to Los Vegas if not Monte Carlo.

But recently, casino gambling proposals have barely broken the news stream’s surface and quietly disappeared into the legislative fog even in the once-sympathetic Senate.

This session, Senate Bill 310 had a small gathering for its public hearing before the Senate Finance Committee — once a reliable supporter — recommended it be killed on a 4-2 vote over the objections of chair D’Allesandro.

The bill included a provision for sports betting at the two casinos proposed in the bill.

That did not help because when the bill came to the Senate floor March 7, Senators voted 13-11 to kill the bill. Not wanting to see his work go away so quickly, D’Allesandro convinced the Senate to keep it alive a little longer by tabling it. 

It is likely to politely die on the table.

But all is not lost on the gambling front.

After a number of tries, Keno was finally approved in 2017 in conjunction with full-day kindergarten.

Keno was supposed to fund the expansion of the pre-school program from a half-a-day of state support to a full day, but not enough communities have voted to allow the game within their boundaries and revenues have fallen short of expectations.

So far this town meeting season, more communities have decided to opt in and allow liquor and food establishments to add the game.

And this week, sports betting will have a vote in the House where there appears to be significant support.

The US Supreme Court last year ruled in Murphy vs. National Collegiate Athletic Association the federal law prohibiting states from allowing betting on professional and amateur sports was unconstitutional. 

While not ruling directly on sports betting, the court opened the door for states to allow betting on sporting events.

Never wanting to pass up a quick revenue grab with surrounding states ready to legally allow what has been happening illicitly, New Hampshire politicians jumped on the bandwagon.

Gov. Chris Sununu included revenues from sports betting in his budget proposal as Hassan included casino gambling revenue in her first budget plan.

Sununu’s budget documents indicate his office expects sports betting to generate $10 million in new revenue during the second year of the biennium that begins July 1.

Under both the House Bill and Sununu’s plan in House Bill 2, betting on high school sporting events or on New Hampshire collegiate teams would not be allowed, you would have to be at least 18 years old to place a bet, and the system would be developed through the Lottery Commission.

Both plans would allow either an outside company to run the gaming scheme or the Lottery Commission could run it directly.

Bets could be placed as they are now through gaming consoles in retail stores, state liquor stores and turnpike rest stops, and the bill does not rule out lottery shops like those in Europe.

However if New Hampshire follows other states that have already legalized sports betting most of the activity will be over mobile devices providing the bets are placed from within the state.

Much like Keno, communities would have to opt in, that is take a vote to allow sports betting within their boundaries, which could limit the size of the undertaking initially.

And as is true of casino gambling, the supporters and opponents to sports betting do not fall down party lines.

Both the governor and House would establish a Council for Responsible Gambling to generate treatment and prevention programs aimed at problem gamblers.

Under the House bill, 10 percent of the state’s share of the revenue would go to the council.

According to a fiscal note from the Lottery Commission, the state could expect between $1.5 million to $7.5 million in revenues the first year on bets between $140 million and $280 million.

The commission expects state revenues to grow to between $2.75 million and $13.5 million by the third year.

Regulating sports betting would cost about $800,000 annually, according to the commission.

Just like casino gambling, supporters talk about the need for new revenue without a new tax or fee, while opponents stress the ethics of collecting money from what is now illegal activity and from people who may not be able to afford the expense.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 17-2 to recommend the bill be approved by the House.

Committee member Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, who chaired the gambling study commission several years ago, says “Betting on sports events is currently illegal in the state, but we all know that many people in New Hampshire, and throughout the country, are engaging in sports betting notwithstanding its illegality. This bill will bring much of this activity to the surface where it will be legal and regulated.”

But Committee member Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said the downside of sports betting is gambling addiction and the significant expansion of the level of gambling in New Hampshire.

And sports betting “will continue state reliance on potentially problematic sources of revenue (sin taxes),” Edwards said, “instead of taking on the more difficult task of redesigning the state tax structure to meet a differing set of social characteristics.”

House Bill 480 is bound to have a lengthy debate Tuesday when the House mets.

But some folks see the possibility of sports betting as an opportunity now that the US Supreme Court has opened the door for states.

The University of New Hampshire Law Center — a couple of blocks from the State House — says on its website “Be on the leading edge of the regulatory environment that governs sports betting in the United States with the first-ever law school program dedicated to the law and business of sports wagering focusing on the legal and regulatory aspects and related integrity issues.

“UNH Law Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, Michael McCann, has teamed up with nationally recognized gaming attorney Daniel Wallach and Sportradar to develop our online Certificate in Sports Wagering and Integrity.”

If you have an entrepreneurial outlook, there are opportunities everywhere.

Now about those Red Sox and who is pitching today’s game.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London. InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas.  

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