Thursday, February 4, 2010

Massachusetts Gears Up To Consider Casinos

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is a Boston Globe article on the momentum in Massachusetts to initiate casino gaming.

Gambling proposal may be gaining
This time, jobs could be key issue
By Casey Ross
The Boston Globe
February 4, 2010

Massachusetts lawmakers will revive one of Beacon Hill’s most contentious issues in the coming weeks with measures to legalize casino gambling and slots at racetracks, betting that desperation to create new jobs and revenue could tip the debate this time around.

State Representative Brian Dempsey, cochair of the Legislature’s economic development committee, predicted his colleagues will be more receptive to legalized gambling than they were two years ago, when House lawmakers rejected Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to license three casinos.

“High unemployment is causing many members to rethink the issue,’’ said Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat. “We certainly need to do everything we can to grow jobs. It doesn’t mean we’re not interested in life sciences, biotech, and manufacturing, but this can be another part of our work to have a positive impact on the economy.’’

Another big change from the last debate: The Legislature’s primary gambling opponent in 2008, Salvatore F. DiMasi, is no longer speaker of the House. His successor, Robert A. DeLeo of Winthrop, is a longtime supporter of gaming who has Wonderland Greyhound Park in his district.

DeLeo is expected to file a gambling bill this month, and his support as lead sponsor could give it more momentum among rank-and-file members.

Though they agree on the general idea of legalized gambling, House leaders and Patrick differ on the particulars. The governor has consistently said gambling should be limited to a few resort-style casinos and should not include slot machines at racetracks. Patrick has said including the tracks would make it harder to control social problems associated with gambling, including increased crime and addiction.

House leaders support authorizing slots at the tracks as a way to generate revenue in the near term, instead of waiting several years for casino developers to get licensed and start construction.

A spokesman for Patrick said it would be premature to comment on the House bill. Senate President Therese Murray, Democrat of Plymouth, has also raised concerns about allowing slot machines at tracks, but has supported licensed casinos.

Still, economic concerns appear to be the major factor shaping the debate.

“I look at the argument not so much from a philosophical point of view, but from the issue of providing construction jobs and, when these facilities are built, full-time jobs,’’ DeLeo said in a recent interview with the Globe. “It can be important to the local economy. It can be important to the state economy, and that’s the message I’m taking this year.’’

Dempsey, whose committee will consider the gambling bill, said he and other House leaders are still fine-tuning several aspects of it, including how many casinos and racetracks would be licensed, how they would be taxed, and whether to factor any gambling revenues into the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Dempsey said the bill would call for a state regulatory body that would administer the law, including licensing applicants.

“This is not a quick turnkey proposal,’’ he said. “We’ve got a lot of mechanical stuff to do, and the regulatory piece is a critical part of that.’’

The House proposal, in the works for months, has generated intense interest among owners of the four racetracks in Massachusetts as well as among developers and casino operators.

For example, a New York-based development firm recently obtained an option on a closed power plant in New Bedford, where it proposes to build a casino complex.

“If Massachusetts wasn’t discussing gaming, then we wouldn’t have come looking for a site,’’ said Andrew Stern, a principal with KG Urban Enterprises, which built a casino on the former site of a Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania. “This time around I think people are really doing their homework.’’

And George Carney, owner of the Raynham Park dog track, which recently laid off about 200 employees because voters outlawed dog racing, said he is prepared to spend up to $200 million to accommodate legalized slot machines. He also said he would be able to rehire laid-off workers if casinos and slot machines are legalized.

“We plan to be able to compete with casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut, with no problem,’’ Carney said. “We’re not just going to throw a few hundred slot machines in a building. There will be restaurants and entertainment as well.’’

Tracks in Wrentham, Revere, and Boston are also weighing their options if slot machines are legalized.

There are also proposals for casinos across the state, including at Suffolk Downs in Boston and in Palmer at a site near the Massachusetts Turnpike, where the operators of Mohegan Sun want to build a $600 million facility.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is also pushing plans for a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, gambling opponents are mobilizing for another fight. Organizers of a group called United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts said they have recruited volunteers across the state.

“There is very strong populist opposition to this when people are given the facts about the predatory nature of the gambling industry,’’ said Kathleen Conley Norbut, president of United to Stop Slots, which also opposes casinos.

“Convenience gambling is a drain on local economies. It’s a wrong-headed idea.’’

Steven Rosenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report.