MetroWest Daily News: Lawmakers Gearing up for Gambling Fight

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said he is concerned that adding slot machines or casinos will potentially hurt thousands of people, and their families, who face an addiction to gambling.

“I’ve always been opposed to expanding gambling in Massachusetts … it’s an extremely wrong-headed direction for Massachusetts to go in,” said Eldridge, who called gaming a “deeply cynical” way of generating new revenue.

8/10/09
By John Hilliard

As another legislative battle over gambling looms this fall, Massachusetts lawmakers are working to separate the fact from fiction around gaming’s revenues and social costs, while well-financed casino developers hire lobbyists and set their sights on the Bay State.

“There’s a lot of hope in this gaming issue, and still not enough facts in what we could expect in (additional) revenue for the commonwealth,” said state Rep. Thomas Conroy, D-Wayland.

In March 2008, House members shot down a proposed three-casino plan backed by Gov. Deval Patrick. Since then, the state’s economic outlook has worsened, and former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, a staunch casino opponent, resigned over allegations of ethics violations. Current House Speaker Robert DeLeo favors slots at racetracks, while Senate President Therese Murray and Patrick have expressed support for gambling.

That leadership change means a shift in the gambling debate landscape, said state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who leads the Legislature’s joint committee on economic development and emerging technologies, which will hold the hearings on casinos, slots and other gambling measures.

She said she is gathering more information about casinos and other gambling-related proposals.

“There are some legislators that feel strongly either way,” she said, and noted she views her role as an arbitrator. “That’s why I feel my role must be neutral, and (I will) listen to all parties.”

While casinos will generate revenue, she said, lawmakers will need to consider gambling’s economic and cultural effects on communities and families.

“I need to be persuaded that gaming … will be a good thing for the commonwealth, ultimately,” Spilka said.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said he is concerned that adding slot machines or casinos will potentially hurt thousands of people, and their families, who face an addiction to gambling.

“I’ve always been opposed to expanding gambling in Massachusetts … it’s an extremely wrong-headed direction for Massachusetts to go in,” said Eldridge, who called gaming a “deeply cynical” way of generating new revenue.

He said a proposal to build a casino based in Marlborough has been opposed by the city’s leadership. Small businesses would be hurt while they competed with casinos for customers’ dollars, he said.

Wayland’s Conroy, who is considering a run for state treasurer, said he acknowledges perceived social costs of gambling, but argues those impacts are harder to quantify than potential revenues. One concern about gaming – slot machines in particular – is competition with the state’s own lottery, a source of revenue for cities and towns. Conroy has been studying the potential revenues associated with gambling, and like other legislators, will be holding public hearings on the matter with constituents.

“I’m skeptical of casinos … they are not the silver bullet for the economy, I believe,” said state Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, who wasn’t a legislator when the House rejected Patrick’s casino bill last year.

She is studying the financial aspects of casinos, and expects that the state’s economy will be a major factor as the debate starts again in the fall. She said many more people are interested in the prospects of gambling in Massachusetts than just a few months ago.

“We have to lay out everything on the table” when it comes to sources of revenue, said Dykema.

State Rep. Danielle Gregoire, D-Marlborough, also wasn’t a member of the House when lawmakers last grappled with casinos.

“I’m really in the process of getting as much information as I can,” said Gregoire, and noted the “economy right now is a huge driving factor in this debate.”

State Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, said he favored a single resort-style casino that could act as a family destination to see how successful it could be. He was among the House members who shot down Patrick’s three-casino proposal last year. Fernandes thought it was too large a measure.

This time around, with House leadership favoring some form of gambling, there might be room for compromise on a specific measure – something that didn’t happen with Patrick’s proposal.

In Middleboro, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is waiting for federal officials to decide whether it can build its own casino in Middleboro, and several in-state racetracks have talked about adding slot machines or partnering with casino companies.

State Rep. Thomas Sannicandro, D-Ashland, said if the Wampanoags are allowed to build a casino, the state will have little control over the project unless it has legislation in place to govern gambling. He also said the state not only faces the question of whether to allow casinos, but whether the location of a casino is a local or regional concern.

“Without us getting involved, we don’t get any revenue either,” said Sannicandro.

Meanwhile, well-heeled casino developers are looking to carve up a potential gambling market in the Bay State: According to records with Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, lobbyists are working on behalf of major firms like Las Vegas Sands, Harrah’s Operating Company, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which oversees Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, and Development Associates, LLC, part of Las Vegas developer Stephen Wynn’s real estate and casino business. Forbes Magazine pegged Wynn’s net worth at about $1.5 billion earlier this year.

Harrah’s also has a local edge – CEO Gary Loveman is a former Harvard Business School professor and Wellesley resident, according to Harvard Business Publishing and state campaign contribution reports.

Mohegan Sun has already set up a small office in Palmer, where the casino hopes to open a 600-room casino resort hotel on 152 acres near the Mass. Pike, according to its Web site.

Closer to home, Colorado developer David Nunes has eyed a casino in the Milford area and met with the town’s selectmen last year about building a Foxwoods-style casino along Interstate 495. And Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson, who is worth $3.4 billion, according to Forbes, has eyed Marlborough as a casino location, also off I-495.

While lawmakers grapple with the future of casino gambling, Attorney General Martha Coakley is pushing for tougher money laundering and wiretapping statutes. Coakley is also backing measures to deal with enterprise crimes that would hold those who control or direct accountable, even if they don’t participate in the actual commission of a crime, according to her office.

Such situations are found with groups like organized crime families, street gangs, identity theft rings and other organizations.

The wiretapping statute, for example, hasn’t been updated since 1968 and doesn’t cover all the technology now in use.

The bill was sponsored by lawmakers including House Majority Leader James Vallee, D-Franklin, and Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, as well as several district attorneys, including Middlesex County’s Gerry Leone.

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