LEWISTON — Thanks to the recent economic recession, cash-strapped New England states are increasingly looking to expand gambling to help balance beleaguered budgets.
The movement has prompted a race of sorts among neighboring states looking to capitalize on the new profits. In Maine, proponents of an Oxford County casino proposal say the state would be ahead of the curve in New England if voters approve the measure this fall.
Dylan Engberg, a researcher with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said a significant number of gaming expansion proposals have been considered by state legislatures this year.
“States are either trying to expand gaming or do something surrounding gaming,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s a competition for gaming dollars, especially in New England and mid-Atlantic states, because they want the residents to keep their gambling dollars within their own state.”
Pennsylvania approved legislation on Jan. 7 to legalize table games at slot parlors. About a week later, neighboring Delaware introduced legislation to legalize table games at their racinos, Engberg said.
“It was enacted within eight days,” he said.
Hollywood Slots, the Bangor racino operating 1,000 slot machines, sent about $27.3 million to the state coffers in 2009, according to the most recent report provided to state lawmakers.
The money supports harness racing, agricultural fairs, the Fund for Healthy Maine, scholarships for the University of Maine and community college systems, the city of Bangor and the state’s general fund.
The New Hampshire Legislature, which is facing a $220 million budget shortfall, is considering a pair of proposals that would authorize at least 10,000 slot machines at various sites in the Granite State.
And though New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, said Friday he would veto both measures, he did not say he was completely opposed to adding gaming. He said he was awaiting a report, due in May, from a gambling commission that he appointed last year.
In Massachusetts, House lawmakers voted overwhelming last week to approve legislation that would license two resort-style casinos and allow up to 3,000 at the Bay State’s two dog-racing and two horse-racing tracks. The proposal would create an estimated 15,000 jobs, bring in more than $250 million in upfront licensing fees and generate between $300 million and $500 million in annual tax revenue, according to a recent release from House Speaker Robert DeLeo, the bill’s primary sponsor.
“This legislation is a jobs bill that will create economic opportunity and keep our residents employed,” DeLeo said in the release.
Engberg of the National Conference of State Legislatures said lawmakers in Rhode Island are considering legislation that would authorize casinos, but the measures have recently stalled.
“They are kind of waiting to see what Massachusetts is going to do,” he said.
Peter Martin of Black Bear Entertainment, the group backing the Oxford County casino, said he was keeping track of what happens in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“That’s why we believe this state should endorse Oxford now — let us get our feet on the ground; let’s get established, because it’s inevitable in New Hampshire,” he said. “If not this year, sometime in the next few years, they are going to come on board.”
Martin has said that if Mainers approve the resort-style casino being proposed for Oxford, it would create up to 1,000 full- and part-time jobs.
Expanded gaming in New Hampshire would have a greater impact on the Maine proposal than expansions in Massachusetts would, Martin said.
“Massachusetts will have minimal impact on what we are proposing for Oxford County, and New Hampshire may have some impact but not enough to change our business model for the facility,” he said.
The group’s latest internal report estimated that about 40 percent of the proposed casino’s business would come from out of state, Martin said.
Anti-casino groups say expanding gambling does not lead to truly sustainable economic development.