Lawmakers betting bill for casinos will pass House
By John J. Monahan TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
BOSTON — House lawmakers are set to hold marathon three-day debates this week over a bill that would make Massachusetts one of the top gambling centers on the East Coast, with two half-billion-dollar casinos and slot parlors at four existing racetracks.
The debate comes at a time when broad opposition to a casino culture that blocked expanded gaming proposals two years ago appears to have given way to the allure of a mid-recession job and state revenue bonanza.
House Speaker Robert E. DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has scheduled the debate on the bill and 216 proposed amendments to begin Tuesday, with a vote expected on Thursday. After a joint Republican-Democratic caucus behind closed doors last week, Mr. DeLeo, who has two racetracks in his district, said he is confident of House passage of the bill.
He expects it to produce up to 15,000 temporary and permanent jobs and more than $300 million in new state revenue annually. Gambling opponents, who prevailed in stopping Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s plan for three casinos and no slot parlors at tracks in 2008, have been frustrated by the fast-track push behind the 172-page bill filed 10 days ago.
Still, groups such as the Massachusetts Family Institute, and United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts are appealing to the public to oppose the plan. MFI President Kristian M. Mineau continued warning last week of the dangers and complaining about a rushed and closed process that produced the legislation.
“Once again with its secretive crafting of the predatory gambling bill, Beacon Hill is showing that it caters to well-funded special interest groups to the detriment of hard-working families,” Mr. Mineau said.
“Many people rightly talk about the organized criminal corruption that comes with legalized predatory gaming” he said. “A far more silent problem is the corruption of the family,” with gambling often contributing to home foreclosures, divorce, domestic abuse and suicide, he argued.
Unlike the governor’s plan that would have put casinos in three regions of the state, the House plan would allow casinos to be proposed in a competitive bidding process without restrictions on where the developments, valued at a minimum of $500 million each, would be sited.
While no developers have so far indicated sites in the immediate Worcester area as possible locations for a casino, proposals are expected for Boston, Palmer, Marlboro, Middleboro, Milford and possibly New Bedford. State Rep. Paul K. Frost, R-Auburn, said a proposal for a casino in the Worcester area is not out of the question once the planned bidding process begins.
Even without a local proposal in Worcester, passage of the bill could result in casino operations built in nearby Palmer along Route 20 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, or at sites being considered along Interstate 495 in Milford and in the Marlboro area.
Jeffrey E. Hartmann is chief operating officer of Mohegan Sun Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut and wants to build a casino in Palmer with direct access from a Turnpike exit. He said the Worcester area would be impacted by a Palmer resort operation.
The development, he said, would include a 600-room hotel, retail shops and restaurants under the Mohegan Sun brand. “Number one, you will have to reach out to area residents for jobs,” he said of local hiring prospects, while the casino would also become a major new customer for local paper, beverage, food and other products and services. “The economic benefit will definitely touch areas like Worcester,”
Mr. Hartmann said. With the extended recession, prospects of new track and casino jobs and $300 million to $600 million in new state revenues have proven enough to turn around scores of House votes.
Those votes include many from Central Massachusetts that opposed casinos when the House rejected the three casino plan on a 108-46 vote two years ago. State Rep. Vincent A. Pedone, who was among those who voted to keep out the casino culture then, said last week he has changed his mind.
“I’m flipping,” the Worcester Democrat acknowledged after the caucus Thursday, saying the economic times and shift in gambling availability are among his reasons to support the racino/casino plan now.
He said Mr. DeLeo’s projections for new jobs and state revenues “are conservative” and while there are clearly negative impacts from gaming, he believes they can be mitigated with funding to treat gambling addictions and incentives in the legislation to force casino operators to limit casino impacts on local restaurants and theaters.
Moreover, he said, gambling is more available than ever, not only from nearby Connecticut casinos, but also in the form of online poker and other games. “Every home with a computer can be a mini-casino,” he said. Online gambling can also be done on a cell phone.
Meanwhile he said, “People stand in lines at the Honey Farms now, scratching tickets.” State Rep. James J. O’Day, D-West Boylston, said he is backing the plan even though he sees social harm in its wake. “I don’t think we can turn up our nose at the number of jobs it is going to generate,” he said. With so many jobless across the state many lawmakers are taking a different stance this time around, he said. “It is a totally different scenario,” Mr. O’Day said.
House leaders are pushing for a two-thirds majority to overcome any possible veto of slots at the tracks by the governor, he said. “It strengthens their hand. I think leadership would feel a lot more comfortable knowing that they had that kind of support behind the bill.” He said he is pushing for assurances that adequate funds will be set aside to treat gambling addictions.
Mr. Frost said while there may be concern that a large resort casino in Palmer could draw on the local customer base for restaurants and entertainment, it could also provide opportunities for cross marketing with area attractions and hotels to bring more visitors to places such as Auburn and Sturbridge.
After some initial confusion about the potential state revenues, House leaders said last week they estimate all the racinos and casinos would produce in excess of $300 million in new state revenue each year.
House Economic Development and Emerging Technology Chairman Brian S. Dempsey, D-Haverhill, said at a press conference last week that it would bring in between $1.4 billion and $1.9 billion annually in new revenues for the commonwealth.
While that statement went uncorrected at the press conference, Mr. Dempsey said when questioned later that he was referring to the gross gambling revenue that would go to the casinos.
The state would tax slot machines at the tracks at a 40 percent rate and gambling revenue at the casinos for slots and table games at a rate of 25 percent.
Mr. Hartmann said that compares favorably for the state to casino taxes in Connecticut, which taxes slot revenues at 25 percent, and imposes no tax on revenues from table games at the tribal casinos.
He said the Palmer location would give his company the chance to draw customers from Massachusetts as well as Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
EDITORIAL FOOTNOTES: Is Hartmann right? Can a casino in Palmer make the Mohegan Tribe money? Is it another Pocono Downs? The casino would only be 55 miles from the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. Who is really taking the risk of Palmer, the Mohegan Tribe (represented by the MTGA) or the executives in charge of gaming at the Mohegan Sun? How much could this cost the Mohegan Tribe? Where will the MTGA get the funds for a casino in Palmer? Will the MTGA look for a partner in the Palmer project? What do you think?