Friday, October 30, 2009

Massachusetts Legislative Committee Holds Gambling Hearing

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The following Tribe In The Media installment is a South Coast article on yesterday's hearing held by a Massachusetts legislative committee on the issue regarding the possibility of expanded gaming in that state. The Mashpee Wampanoag chairman said at the hearing that the Tribe could be interested in a commercial casino license should gaming be approved but noted that it still pursues a casino on tribal land permitted under federal Indian Gaming law.

Proponents, foes of expanded gaming make their cases before state committee
By Steve Decosta
South Coast
October 29, 2009

BOSTON -- In a steady stream they approached the microphone, singly and in groups, to make their impassioned or dispassionate, facts-and-figures pleas for and against the most divisive issue currently facing the Massachusetts Legislature: expanded gaming.

Under the pall of the state’s rising unemployment and shrinking revenues, dozens of partisans made their arguments before the Legislature’s Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies on Thursday in a hearing that began at 10:10 a.m. and lost steam by mid-afternoon; a similar hearing last year stretched more than 14 hours.

Those testifying in favor of expanded gaming outnumbered opponents, but it remained unclear whether any minds were changed. Several committee members clearly expressed their biases on the issue, while others sat stone-faced listening to the testimony in three-minute bursts.

Membership on the committee has turned over dramatically, as has the speakership of the House, since the gaming issue was last addressed – and overwhelmingly defeated -- in March 2008.

The state’s economic woes were cited Thursday as both the prime reason and the worst excuse to expand gaming.

While Gov. Deval Patrick was announcing the latest round of state budget cuts in Worcester, state Sen. Marc Pacheco argued that: “A million dollars a day – a day – we have lost,” because the Legislature has failed to authorize expanded gaming.

Carrying the mantle of opponents from her seat on the panel, Sen. Susan Tucker, countered: “I don’t know how it would help our economy to have people dumping millions of dollars into slot machines and having the profits shipped out of state.”

Officially, the hearing was conducted to review 16 specific pieces of pending legislation that would expand gaming in one form or another, but ostensibly it focused on two broad topics: “It’s all about jobs and money,” state Sen. Joan Menard said.

From the corporate headquarters of the Mohegan Sun to the kitchen of a typical family of Bridgewater, those who testified offered myriad theories about how many jobs would be created, how much revenue would be raised, how soon gaming facilities could be set up and how much the Bay State would suffer, primarily in social costs, but there was little in the ways of consensus.

Proponents, primarily union representatives and casino developers, promised new jobs and the recapture of millions of dollars in lost revenues, while opponents predicted a litany of horrors, including increased crime and addition and the domination of a predatory industry that could not be controlled by any regulatory agency.

“The initial proposal is always based on what people hope and what people hope is never what happens in the end,” said Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O’Leary. “Once these facilities are built, they own you as much as you own them.”

When the meeting was called to order, the auditorium was about two-thirds full and there was little in the way of the spectacle that pervaded a similar hearing on the issue in March 2008.

Hardhatted union demonstrators gathered outside, bearing signs claiming “Casinos equal 20,000 Massachusetts jobs.” Inside, there were a few T-shirted shows of force, notably several dozen in turquoise from Plainridge Race Course in Plainville and those from western Massachussetts who donned equations claiming “Casino + Palmer = Jobs,” but nothing like last year, when red-shirted union members filled about half the seats in the room.

The governor didn’t hit lead off, as he did last year, but representatives of his administration made a strong pitch for casinos to drive economic development and recapture revenue being gambled and spent elsewhere by Massachusetts residents.

Gaming opponents, clearly outnumbered in the room, proclaimed themselves at a distinct disadvantage to well-financed industry supporters and said they welcomed the public hearing forum to make their case. “We don’t have millions of dollars so this is how we get our message out,” said Kathleen Conley Norbut, resident of United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts.

Asked is she thought any minds were being changed at the hearing, Norbut said, “There are some (legislators) who are convinced on one side and others who are convinced on the other side, but I think there are plenty of legislators in the middle who are looking for a reason to vote no.”

At Thursday’s hearing, committee members were able to take in the testimony without the glaring disapproval of former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, an avowed gaming opponent now under indictment on a separate issue. His successor, Robert DeLeo, supported by the governor and the Senate president, has promised a single gaming bill for consideration early next year.

While the 2008 hearing has a decidedly SouthCoast flavor, only a few of those testifying Thursday had SouthCoast connections. The only SouthCoast legislators to offer testimony were Sens. Pacheco and Menard.

Summarizing the findings of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis’ New England Gaming Behavior Survey, director Clyde W. Barrow told the committee, “Massachusetts residents have listened to the arguments for 14 years now and they have come to the conclusion that the benefits of casinos outweigh the costs.”

Also appearing before the committee was Cedric Cromwell , chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which was the catalyst of last year’s debate after proposing a resort casino on sovereign land in Middleboro. That plan has been stymied by a Supreme Court decision, but Cromwell said, “we are very confident about the process being fixed” by pending federal legislation and it remains the tribe’s primary intention.

Still, Cromwell said the tribe would consider seeking a state gaming license, should one become available. “The tribe is open to talking with the state to determine what the best route is, (but) it’s premature for us to talk without knowing what the specifics are. We want to keep that dialog open. We’d love to sit and talk with you.”

While there was little discussion of where any casinos might be located, New Bedford Democratic Rep. Robert Koczera used his seat on the panel to push the interest of SouthCoast. “There are regions of this state, mine included, whose economies are hurting,” he said. “The economic benefits of locating a casino there are important.”

As the hearing wound to a close and the testimony became more personal and poignant, committee members -- including House chairman Brian Dempsey -- drifted out of the room until only a handful were left.