Turf war looms over who would have law enforcement power of a NH casino
Union Leader Statehouse Bureau
CONCORD — Casino gambling has yet to be approved by lawmakers, but local and state police are in a turf battle over who should have jurisdiction inside the facility.
Local police should have the primary law enforcement responsibility inside a casino as well as outside, a representative of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police said Tuesday.
Appearing before a House Ways and Means Committee work session on House Bill 1633, which establishes the regulatory framework and authority for a casino, South Hampton Police Chief and former head of the Liquor Commission's enforcement bureau, Eddie Edwards, said the state does not need "to babysit a private business."
Up to 30 officers
Under the bill, State Police would establish a gaming enforcement unit with primary responsibility to enforce state laws, regulations and rules on a casino floor and in restricted areas such as the counting rooms and monitoring areas.
Department of Safety Assistant Commissioner Earl Sweeney told the committee the new unit would include 20 state troopers and 10 detectives to investigate any wrongdoing inside the casino.
"If a casino is licensed by the state, it is a creation of the state and the state ought to have control over the law enforcement," he told the committee.
The bill was carefully crafted so the state police would not be accused of poaching on the authority of local police, Sweeney said, noting the language mirrors that of interstate highways, where state police are the primary law enforcement authority.
And he said the bill gives state police concurrent jurisdiction on all casino facility grounds in case an incident occurs and local police are not available.
"We would look pretty foolish if we can't do anything," Sweeney told the committee. "This would ensure we are not just another pretty face."
Under questioning from several committee members, Sweeney said his agency is not absolutely sure it needs 30 additional troopers, but wanted to err on the higher end. If all the troopers are not needed, they could be used by other departments, he said.
He said the enforcement unit would conduct background investigations on licensees for the Attorney General's Office.
"I suspect it will cost less," Sweeney said. "As you know, like all fiscal notes, you stick your finger up in the air and wet it."
Edwards told the committee local police would be able to handle all the duties state police would perform, including the background checks.
He said local communities have to approve the casino and would support its police handling the oversight, and added casinos would have their own security forces.
Under the bill, there would be duplication, he said. He reminded lawmakers each new trooper would need his or her own cruiser, fully equipped and maintained.
"Why should the state provide security for a private monopoly?" Edwards said.
He said the police chiefs' proposal does not mean the association endorses casino gambling, because the organization is opposed to expanding gambling.
Checks and balances
Earlier, the committee heard from Maureen Williamson of WhiteSands Gaming LLC, the consultant hired by the Gaming Regulatory Oversight Authority to help draft the proposed legislation.
She said the bill presents a regulatory approach best suited to New Hampshire that draws on best practices within the industry and what is both feasible and cost-effective.
The bill would establish a gaming commission to oversee all gambling in the state, including the Lottery, racing and charitable gambling and a casino, under three separate divisions. "That way you retain the institutional memory with a consistent approach to gaming in New Hampshire with the same controls for charitable and commercial gaming," she told the committee.
The bill sets up a check-and-balance system that avoids agency in-fighting, Williamson said.
She noted the Attorney General's Office conducts background investigations into the applicants for casino operator and makes a recommendation to the commission, which will make the final decision.
But committee member Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, questioned why the attorney general's recommendations would not be binding on the commission, as they are with other state licenses.
He noted the state has a long-standing statute that gives the attorney general authority to prohibit someone from holding a state license.
Williamson said the arrangement is a check-and-balance that does not give one agency veto power over another.
"What is in the bill is what works very effectively nationally and internationally," she said.
The committee meets again Thursday at 9:30 a.m. to work on the bill.