Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Massachusetts Lawmakers Weigh Racinos Versus Casinos

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This installment of the Tribes In The Media is a Telegram Gazzette article on possible gambling legislation in Massachusetts and the viewpoints of some politicians.

Single casino, better odds
Slots get nod over ‘resorts’
By John J. Monahan
Telgram and Gazzette
February 21, 2010

I didn’t want three casinos at the same time. … If the plan would be to build one, as opposed to multiple casinos, I would support it.

-- Rep. John J. Binenda, D-WORCESTER

BOSTON — House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s drive for resort casinos and slot machines at the state’s racetracks is expected to test lawmakers who rejected expanded gambling two years ago.

To succeed, Mr. DeLeo must persuade as many as 30 Democratic representatives in an election year to switch their opinion on a controversial issue.

Gambling politics on Beacon Hill has changed dramatically since the House of Representatives voted 106-48 to kill Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s three-resort-casino plan in March 2008.

Former Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi marshaled opposition to kill the casino bill, despite intensive lobbying by Mr. Patrick. Mr. DiMasi argued that projections for tens of thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions in new state revenues were inflated.

With Mr. DiMasi’s resignation last year and subsequent indictment on charges he used his position to reap money from an alleged bid-rigging scheme, opponents of gambling lost a key ally.

Mr. DeLeo, D-Winthrop, is pushing for installation of thousands of slot machines at the state’s four racetracks as a way to quickly generate new state revenues. He has promised to file legislation for slot machines and casinos in the coming weeks.

Revenues are down at other New England casinos but high unemployment has intensified pressure on lawmakers to create more jobs.

Another change since 2008 occurred when Mr. DeLeo replaced state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, an adamant gambling opponent, as chairman of the House committee that controls gambling legislation.

House members said the new chairman, state Rep. Brian S. Dempsey, D-Haverhill, has been polling them on whether they would support slot parlors or casinos as he prepares to take up Mr. DeLeo’s expanded gambling bill.

One casino opponent, state Rep. John J. Binienda, D-Worcester, said he is willing to change his vote to expand gambling.

“I didn’t want three casinos at the same time,” Mr. Binienda said of his vote to kill casinos two years ago, emphasizing his support is conditional upon slot machines going into racetracks.

“The first thing I wanted to do was put slots at the racetracks,” he said, an option not included in the 2008 plan. With greyhound racing now banned, he said, thousands are facing job losses. “If the plan would be to build one, as opposed to multiple casinos, I would support it,” said Mr. Binienda, a member of Mr. DiMasi’s and now Mr. DeLeo’s leadership team.

Another vote in the plus column this year would come from state Rep. Paul J. Kujawski, D-Webster, who did not cast a vote on the 2008 bill. He said he is “very pro casino” and argues that adding slot machines at the racetracks would not pose a moral issue because the state already licenses gambling at those locations.

State Rep. Anne M. Gobi, D-Spencer, who voted against the casino bill in 2008, said inclusion of slots at racetracks in a casino bill could get her to change her position.

“I’ve always supported slots at the racetracks,” she said. Her 2008 opposition, she said, was because she “didn’t want to go with three.”

“I am always willing to look at the casino issue,” she said. She also said she would like an independent analysis of the impacts and benefits on host communities, especially with revenues declining at some casinos. “Even two may be too many,” she said.

Ms. Gobi said location could also affect her view of a casino bill, because she does not favor having a casino in Palmer, one of many sites casino developers are offering as a possible location.

Other casino sites developers are considering are Milford, Marlboro, Boston, and southeastern Massachusetts.

State Rep. John V. Fernandes, D-Milford, said he voted against casinos two years ago because three was too many. He said he would now consider voting for fewer casinos.

“It’s not a flip-flop,” he said, adding he always believed “there is a place for a destination resort casino industry” in Massachusetts. His vote this year will be complicated by the prospect of having one in his hometown.

“I have doubts whether such a large development can fit the character of the community,” he said. He wants cities and towns to have veto power over any proposals and control of liquor licenses.

Another concern is whether expanded gaming would further reduce state Lottery revenues that communities rely on for school assistance.

Mr. Fernandes said he is “keeping an open mind” on the slots proposals, but said he has not been a big fan of slots at racetracks.

“I don’t think they bring as much to the table as resort casinos,” he said. Inclusion of slots with a casino plan, he said, “would not be a deal breaker” for him, but slots alone with no casinos might.

“I would have a hard time voting for just slots,” he said.

Gambling proponents could pick up a vote from state Rep. Dennis A. Rosa, D-Leominster. He replaced former state Rep. Jennifer L. Flanagan, who was a no vote in 2008.

“I’m on the fence. It’s 50-50,” he said. “I could go either way.”

“If it is going to involve racetracks and one or three casinos, I will be looking at this as a huge social experiment that will affect millions of people,” Mr. Rosa said.

State Rep. Jennifer M. Callahan, D-Sutton, who voted against the casino bill two years ago, said she hasn’t made up her mind.

She said the 2008 plan for three casinos was overkill. If the proposal is for just slots at racetracks, she said, it would be “putting the cart before the horse,” opening the possibility that the state would only get slot parlors and no casinos in the future.

She said she also remains worried about the impact of casinos on the Lottery.

“We cannot afford to undermine one of the most successful lotteries in the country,” and jeopardize local aid, she said.

State Rep. Karyn E. Polito, R-Shrewsbury, who backed the previous casino plan, said concern over the state Lottery effects on local businesses will be factors in her consideration.

She said she wants gambling revenues directed to cities and towns if gambling is expanded. The location also will be a factor in her vote.

State Rep. Geraldo Alicea, D-Charlton, said he voted against Mr. Patrick’s proposal because three casinos was over-saturation.

“There is a strong interest in creating jobs,” he said, but he would oppose putting slots at racetracks.

“I’m in the camp that needs to be convinced,” he said.