Lowell Sun: New Gambling Battle Looms on Beacon Hill

Eldridge, who is at a rehabilitation center after suffering a seizure and undergoing surgery to repair a broken shoulder and vertebrae, will not be able to attend the hearing, but plans to submit written testimony in which he says he opposes expanded gambling “with every bone in my body.”

10/28/09
By Matt Murphy

BOSTON — As the leading critic of expanded gambling, Sen. Susan Tucker hopes she has a winning hand to play with the issue poised to reclaim the spotlight on Beacon Hill.

The debate over whether casinos and slot machines should be licensed in Massachusetts begins again today in a far more friendly environment at the Statehouse than when it was defeated in the House last year by an overwhelming majority.

In the first of what could be several public hearings, the Legislative committee tasked with crafting a gambling proposal will begin the process today when it takes testimony on 16 separate gambling bills proposing everything from resort-style casinos to slot parlors and “racinos.”

Tucker knows she has many colleagues that need convincing, but she remains as passionate as ever in the belief that opening the doors to expanded gambling will hurt Massachusetts families and do little to solve the ongoing budget crisis.

“It’s the biggest rip-off transfer of money from the pockets of working families to fabulously wealthy out-of-state investors,” Tucker said. “It’s not a revenue source for state government because the costs created by the industry are borne by the state, not the casino operators.”

Gambling critics argue that the cost of treating problem gamblers will far outweigh the benefits of the revenue generated for the state. Some legislative opponents have estimated that Massachusetts could end up spending $750 million a year to treat addicted gamblers, based on spending done in other states.

Others point to the negative impact casinos and slot machines will have on local economies and on lottery revenue used to fund aid for cities and towns. A 2004 study conducted by University of Illinois economics professor Earl Grinois found that for every $1,000 in increased casino revenue, local businesses up to 30 miles away lost $243.

“If it worked, states like Connecticut and New Jersey would either have lower taxes or fewer problems meeting their spending needs, but they have higher taxes by far and budget messes of their own,” Tucker said.

Tucker plans to highlight these concerns and more this morning at pre-hearing press conference where she will be joined by Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, the leading critic in the House. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is also part of a small coalition of lawmakers leading the charge against casinos and slot machines.

Eldridge, who is at a rehabilitation center after suffering a seizure and undergoing surgery to repair a broken shoulder and vertebrae, will not be able to attend the hearing, but plans to submit written testimony in which he says he opposes expanded gambling “with every bone in my body.”

Two years ago when Gov. Deval Patrick first proposed licensing three resort-style casinos, a Statehouse hearing drew gambling executives from around the country, including Sheldon Adelson, a Dorchester native and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. This year’s hearing promises to be more low key, though committee staffers said they could not predict who might show up to offer testimony.

Part of the difference with this year’s debate is that there is no concrete proposal to work from. Legislators filed a myriad of bills this session that will likely be crafted into a single, more concrete piece of legislation by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies over the next several months.

Unlike 2008, when then-House Speaker Sal DiMasi led the effort to kill casino legislation, new Speaker Robert DeLeo is far more open to gambling, particularly the idea of adding slot machines to the state’s struggling racetracks — two of which are in his district.

Not all supporters of expanded gambling think casinos or slots will solve the state’s fiscal problems, but many see it as another tool the state can use to replace lost tax revenue.

“It’s not going to solve anything, but $1 billion already goes to Connecticut. It’s pretty simple,” said Rep. William Greene, D-Billerica, referring to some estimates of money spent by Massachusetts residents at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.

State Rep. Jim Arciero, D-Westford, also said he’s open to supporting some form a gambling, though he prefers the resort-casino model to slot parlors.

“I’m open to them, but I would have to see a plan first,” Arciero said.

Supporters and opponents alike agree it will be hard to start counting votes in the Legislature until a finalized plans gets drafted that takes into account not just the type of gambling, but job and revenue estimates, tax structures, regulatory control and increased law enforcement.

Asked whether she is confident she can swing her colleagues to her side, Tucker said it was hard to predict.

“I would like to think I have already convinced some, but others are still trying to convince me,” she said.

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