Telegram & Gazette: Casino opponents warn of menace

BOSTON —  With the state Senate appearing on the verge of approving legislation to open the state to casino gambling, the shrinking number of opponents in the Senate yesterday made a final pitch to stop the bill, saying casinos would be a menace to seniors, a cancer on the state’s economy and “a tax on the poor.”

Six members of the Senate took turns laying out their concerns at the Statehouse Tuesday, led by Sen. Susan C. Tucker, D-Andover, who said the legislation, slated for debate today, will promote the most predatory forms of gambling.

She said the Senate legislation aims to maximize profits for the state and casino owners, without regard to other economic and human costs.

Proponents of the three-casino plan have pointed to an $80,000 Senate-funded study by the Innovation Group that estimated three casinos would produce up to $460 million in annual state revenues and create more than 9,645 permanent casino jobs.

Ms. Tucker said that study was prepared by a firm with ties to the gambling industry and was used to justify parts of the bill that would waive the state’s workplace smoking ban for casinos; allow identification and tracking of potential gambling addicts for free promotions; allow free alcohol; and extend credit to those who lose all their money. She said job estimates do not count jobs at restaurants and other businesses competing with casino resorts that would be killed by gambling.

“We are here to question whether the role of state government is to encourage our citizens to gamble and gamble more,” Ms. Tucker said. She said she fully expects whatever safeguards are put in place now will be lifted by the state at the behest of influential casino operators once casinos are established.

“This is a bad deal for the commonwealth,” said Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton. He also complained that the Senate study was tainted by ties to the industry, and said relying on that study to design casino law was like having foxes design the security system for a henhouse.

“The study is based on the idea that our only goal is to maximize jobs and revenue for the commonwealth, which apparently to them means first maximizing profits for casinos,” Mr. Eldridge said. “We should care about common-sense protections to prevent people from spending their life savings, retirement and Social Security checks,” he argued, instead of trying to maximize losses by casino customers.

Mr. Eldridge said the human costs will be high. “Every region where a casino has been legalized in the country there is an increased rate of domestic violence, divorce and crime and of assaults,” he said. He and other opponents complained that there has been no study on the social and economic costs of the Senate plan.

Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen, D-Somerville, who is chairwoman of the Elderly Affairs Committee, said casinos would have a major economic impact on the elderly. Even without casinos in the state, she said, gambling, including bingo, has displaced lunch with friends, movies and golf as a favorite leisure activity of seniors, even though four out of five people over 65 years old are not financially secure.

“When gambling is more available it becomes even more of a source of enjoyment and pleasure and financial ruin,” she said. Ms. Jehlen said seniors will get their money to gamble from reduced spending on consumer goods and from their savings, which she said, “will mean they have a less secure retirement.”

Sen. Susan C. Fargo, D-Lincoln, described casinos as “a cancer” on the state that would hurt other tourism. She said the state should not put profits over the health of the public by allowing smoking in casinos.

Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz, D-Boston, cited a study that showed lower-income working families will lose a larger percentage of their incomes to gaming, and the casino profits will be fueled by the paychecks of working men and women.

“The fundamental truth about this bill … is that it is a tax on the poor,” Ms. Diaz said. “We have the resources and the brainpower in Massachusetts to do better.”

Casinos will damage Cape Cod’s tourism brand, and that of the rest of the state over time, said Sen. Robert A. O’Leary, D-Barnstable.

The debate takes place as the state is scrambling to fill a potential $600 million hole in the budget for fiscal 2011 that begins July 1, a shortfall caused by congressional inaction on additional Medicaid funding for the state. Two days have been set aside for the debate, which will include action on 164 amendments.

The House has approved a bill for three casinos and racinos at each of the state’s four racetracks. Senate passage would set up a six-member joint House-Senate committee to work out a compromise bill.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick yesterday said he wants and expects to see a casino bill on his desk by the end of the month.

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