Apr. 8—BEDFORD — New Hampshire lawmakers are headed into the home stretch with plans to legalize the latest form of expanded gambling and permit bets on previously run, randomly selected horse races to benefit charities and state aid to education.
After a spirited debate on Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved the historic racing bill (HB 626) by a solid 223-152 vote.
The concept already had the backing of the State Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu.
The Senate voted, 20-4, last April 1 to endorse a nearly identical bill (SB 112), which it sent over to the House.
In his state budget address in February, Sununu proposed making historic racing legal (HB 2) to help pay for his two-year spending plan.
Legislative leaders in the coming weeks will decide how they want to try to make this gambling expansion a reality, either as this standalone bill or part of the global bargain over a state budget that will be negotiated late this spring.
State Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Stratham, said these games would be a financial boon for nonprofits, offered where charity gambling already occurs at 16 locations across the state marketed as "casinos" or "poker rooms."
"These are not large-scale casinos. This is New Hampshire's unique brand of gambling," Abrami said.
Critics maintain the gambling operators will be the big winners, receiving an estimated $49 million in annual revenue, compared to $12 million for aid to education and $6 million for charities.
"This is a giveaway of millions of dollars of revenue from the state to the operators," said state Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow.
She noted that charities, which currently get 35% of casino gambling wagers, will receive only 8.75% from historic racing.
The bill permits anyone 18 or older to place bets of up to $25 apiece, with no limit on the number of machines or the daily wager total.
"Quite simply this is a bad bill. This includes all the costs of expanded gambling, but none of the benefits," Walz said.
Heavy lobbying for bill
Outside of the state budget, this legislation is one of the most-lobbied bills of the 2021 session, with at least a dozen lobbyists signed up to represent gambling companies and makers of video terminals used for this gambling.
House Ways and Means Chairman Norm Major, R-Atkinson, said charities get more from existing games because they pay operators rent to host those contests, and they won't pay rent for historic racing.
The New Hampshire State Lottery, which would manage historic racing, has approved the revenue structure that recognizes historic racing costs operators more to manage than existing charity gambling does, Major said.
"The split between the charities, education trust fund and the operators is fair to all parties," Major said.
Abrami said 500 charities currently benefit from these games, with a waiting list of other nonprofits.
During the debate, volunteers and staffers with charities carried signs outside the NH Sportsplex urging lawmakers to pass the bill.
"To say this is not fair to the charities is a total misnomer," Abrami said.
Currently, historic racing is legal in five states. Virginia most recently adopted it in 2018.
"Slot machines are the most addictive form of gambling. An 18-year-old high school student could play $25 a pop every five seconds and lose $300 an hour," said Rep. Kurt Wuelper, R-Strafford, who opposed the measure.
The Wyoming Supreme Court ultimately ruled historic horse racing illegal in 2006, saying the game is "a slot machine that attempts to mimic traditional pari-mutuel wagering."
Seven years later, that state's Legislature overruled the court and made the machines legal.
Abrami said unlike slots, there is some skill involved in picking winners.
Gamblers will not know where or when the races they bet on were run or the names of the horses.
But they can use video terminals to look at "Skill Graph" charts similar to a Racing Form, which provide detailed information about the past performance of all the competitors.
The machines look a lot like those gamblers in New Hampshire already use to find out if their Lucky 7 tickets are winners, he said.
"Are these slot machines? Yes, they may look and feel like a slot machine, but they are not," Abrami said.
Advocates have been lobbying for this gambling for more than a decade.
In the past, the effort ran into a political brick wall of opposition from Senate leaders from both parties who wanted full-blown casinos.
The casino push here has quietly lost all momentum since Massachusetts in June 2019 opened the glitzy Encore Boston Harbor Casino in Everett, less than an hour from the New Hampshire border.