MetroWest Daily News: Not all are on board for slot plan

By John Hilliard
3/4/09

State Treasurer Tim Cahill’s proposal to allow slot machines in Massachusetts – and generate what he said would be billions of dollars in state revenue, plus millions more annually – was met with mixed reaction from local lawmakers yesterday.

Under Cahill’s plan, the state would license three gaming locations through a competitive bidding process, and collect up-front licensing fees from slot operators of between $1.95 billion and $3.35 billion, he said.

The state would also raise more than $200 million a year from taxes imposed on slot revenues, according to Cahill.

“I think we need to look at the long term,” said state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who said any talk of allowing gaming into Massachusetts needs to consider potential social effects, such as gambling addiction.

Spilka said she thought Cahill’s estimates are too high, but the issue for lawmakers is whether the state should generate revenue from slot machines.

“It’s more than a revenue decision – it’s public policy,” she said.

On the other side of the aisle, state Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, said Cahill’s estimates are too low: he believed slots could bring in about $400 million annually to the state. His district, which includes horse racing and regional draws like the Wrentham outlets, would benefit from slots for the jobs and revenue they’d provide, Brown said.

Slots could be ready to go in a matter of weeks at existing establishments, he said, as opposed to years before any Massachusetts-based casinos could be up and running.

“Nobody is building casinos. The market has crushed most of the investors,” said Brown.

Other legislators were against allowing slots.

State Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, said if the state were to allow gaming, it should focus on Las Vegas-style casinos because they’d offer more amenities beyond gaming, such as restaurants and family activities.

“That doesn’t change just because we’re in a bad economy,” said Fernandes.

Fernandes also said the state should test a single gaming site first, to study what the implications would be before allowing it statewide.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, opposed bringing gaming to Massachusetts and called slots a “predatory product” that threatens low-income families. Cahill’s slot revenue estimates were also too optimistic, he said.

“I don’t think it’s the right way to address” the state’s financial problems, said Eldridge.

Margot Cahoon, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, said her group won’t take a position on whether the state should allow gaming. But legislators should ensure that help is available to those grappling with gambling problems, she said.

Lawmakers should consider “if they are going to do it, (to) take care of people it’s going to harm,” said Cahoon.

Senior citizens, many of whom frequent casinos in other states through organized trips, might be seen as one customer base for Bay State slots.

But convenience might be a concern. Marybeth Duffy, director of Waltham’s Council on Aging, said she thinks about how much local seniors gamble.

“I wouldn’t be a big fan of it,” said Duffy of slots. “Gambling tends to attract a lot of people with the least resources.”

Waltham organizes one trip a year for local seniors to hit a casino, but Duffy said that’s one trip mixed in with concerts and other activities.

“We don’t overdo it,” said Duffy.

Laura Demattia, who is director of Bellingham’s Council on Aging and the senior center, said many of the seniors who participate in the town’s programs have been in favor of in-state gaming in the past.

“The seniors have no problem speaking up to the legislators and letting them know what their opinions are,” said Demattia.