September 14, 2011
By John Monahan
Social worker, church and civic organizations yesterday unleashed a torrent of blistering criticisms and dire warnings over a controversial bill for three casinos and a slot machine resort that backers expect to be approved by the House this week.
Opponents rallied on the Statehouse steps in bright sunlight, warning over loudspeakers that the social ills and costs of expanded gambling will outweigh any benefits. They accused legislative supporters and Gov. Deval L. Patrick of gambling the well-being of future generations by opening the door to casinos.
“This is a bad decision on so many levels,” said Eva Valentine, president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.
“Casinos in any community cannibalize small business,” she said, arguing casinos would make it harder for small restaurants, clothing stores and other small businesses to prosper and create jobs in cities and towns near casinos. “I can’t believe this is the most creative idea that has come up to solve our economic problems,” she said.
“Folks, gambling expansion on this scale is cruel, and it’s expensive,” warned the Rev. Laura Everett from the State Council of Churches. She said casinos will double the number of problem and addicted gamblers in the state, now are estimated to number 250,000.
James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference that represents the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, said any short-term economic benefits are outweighed by the long-term pitfalls.
“We are talking about individuals with addictions, bankruptcies, breakup of marriages, breakup of families, alcoholism, drug abuse, the list goes on and on,” he said. “Casinos and slots in Massachusetts can and will cause a new set of social and economic problems.”
More crime, pensions for a new group of regulators, an increase in problem gamblers and in suicide rates are all problems the state can expect if the bill is approved, said Mary Tufts, founder of Casino Free Massachusetts.
She used the retort Mr. Patrick relied on to rebuff his critics on the campaign trail when she said his support of casinos was in sharp contrast to the value he places on social justice and the “high, noble principles” he wrote about in his recent biography.
“Just words,” she said.
The criticisms piled up on the Statehouse steps while House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, D-Winthrop, worked inside the building to line up rank and file support for the bill in a closed-door caucus of House Democrats.
Debate on the bill and 159 proposed amendments are set to begin today with a final vote possible by late tomorrow.
After blocking expanded gambling for decades, the House last year approved a casino and slot parlor bill on a 120-37 vote, only to see the bill rejected by Mr. Patrick, who opposed provisions for two slot parlors at race tracks.
The Senate last year approved the bill 25-15.
Mr. Patrick this year said he will go along with one competitively bid slot resort, in addition to three casinos.
Backers say the three, $500 million dollar casinos and a $125 million slot resort will create thousands of desperately needed jobs and create major new revenue source to help the state deal with its budget problems.
Three casinos would be licensed in three geographic regions of the state, one in Western Massachusetts, another in Central and Eastern Massachusetts and a third in Southeastern Massachusetts. A Native American tribe would be given preference to secure a license for the casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Opponents said despite last year’s votes they are still hoping the legislation will be rejected.
“My hope is that a light will go on inside this building and people will look up and recognize what’s happening here. This is a predatory industry that preys on people. Slot machines are the most addictive form of gambling on the face of the earth,” said Rebekah L. Gewirtz, of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
She said casinos will not add jobs but merely displace jobs from existing small businesses.
Another longtime opponent, state Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, said he will again vote against the bill when it gets to the Senate. He said he is concerned about impacts on communities around casinos and the impact on local theater and entertainment venues.
“I’m giving my best efforts to highlight the reasons why it is a bad bill for Massachusetts,” Mr. Eldridge said. While most backers support expanded gambling to create jobs and revenues, he said many are basing that support on conditions in the industry from four years ago, before the recession greatly reduced casino revenues in other states.
Former state Sen. Susan C. Tucker, who led Senate opposition to the bill before retiring last year, warned lawmakers a vote for casinos may come back to haunt them.
She said politicians who believe the public wants casinos may see a different reaction among voters when casino sites are actually developed.
“Wait until one is proposed near your district. Three times more voters oppose casinos if they are anywhere near them than support them in the abstract,” she said.
“It can be a career-ending vote,” Ms. Tucker said, adding that developers will face local citizen protests and lawsuits over casinos.
She said casinos will mostly hurt lower-wage workers.
“Casinos are the best mechanisms ever invented to take money out of the pockets of low-income people and ship it to out-of-state to billionaires,” Ms. Tucker said.