N.H. House Votes to Allow Keno

The New Hampshire House may have taken the first halting steps toward gaming expansion with the approval last week of keno games by the state lottery. Is this a precursor to a casino vote?

The New Hampshire House voted last week to authorize electronic keno games in the Granite State’s taverns and restaurants.

The keno games would be part of the state lottery and would be played by marking a paper slip, rather than at a machine.

Supporters say that if the Senate passes the bill it would contribute $9 million annually in taxes to the state’s treasury. That assumes that at least 250 bars and eateries install the machines.

The bill would allow municipalities to opt out of hosting the machines.

Critics say the keno games would put the gambling camel’s nose under the tent. “In legalizing keno, New Hampshire would be moving one step closer to casino gambling,” said Rep. Mary Cooney, D-Plymouth, who voted against the bill. She fears that keno targets the poor and promotes gambling addiction.

Supporters of gaming legislation in the state closely watched the House vote since that chamber has consistently opposed allowing casinos in the state.

However, the two issues may not be that similar. For example, one casino opponent who voted for the keno bill noted that keno money would stay in the state, whereas money spent at a casino might go to owners who don’t live in New Hampshire. Keno will also help local restaurants attract customers who like to play the game, he said.

Nevertheless, passage of the bill by the House is seen as a possible bellwether for another run at the issue this year. Especially since a bill that was a result of a special panel tasked with proposing casino regulations has now been introduced in the House.

The House Ways and Means Committee began holding hearings last week on the recommendations of the New Hampshire Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority, which completed its work in December and handed over its recommendations to lawmakers. It recommended authorizing one casino with 5,000 slots and 150 gaming tables.

The Senate, where a bill authorizing two casinos has been introduced, has decided to wait and see the result of the House vote before proceeding. The two chambers have clashed in the past over the best way to raise funds to complete highway improvements, secondary education and economic development.

In May of 2013 the House killed a Senate gaming bill by a vote of 199-164. But supporters say it is becoming more urgent for the state to allow a casino since neighboring Massachusetts is nearing the end of its casino licensing process and may soon build three casino resorts and one slots parlor.

Also watching the process with interest is New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, who last year strongly lobbied in favor of the one-casino bill. She favored the commission’s study as a way of dealing with opponents’ concerns that the bill last year contained inadequate regulatory protections.