Part I of III:
Casino Gambling is 'Hot' This Year

Some Legislators Think It Will 'Solve' Their Problems;
But Is It Good For Massachusetts?

By Ed Oliver
March 2003 Print Edition

With the state scrambling to close a $650 million budget gap and a possible $3 billion deficit next fiscal year, there is grow-ing sentiment on Beacon Hill to "solve" their problems by legal-izing casino gambling and slot machines. This promises to be a hot issue in coming months.

 
Even Gov. Romney says we should copy Foxwoods if it will make money for Beacon Hill. Others say they see more important considerations.

Some at the State House believe that casinos could infuse the state budget with hundreds of millions of dollars a year, as well as provide money and jobs for surrounding communities.
Critics retort that there is no guarantee that casino gambling will rake in windfall profits, and it may well hurt the Lottery and local businesses. There are also social costs. They say that the proliferation of casinos will lower the quality of life in Massachusetts. Also, the poor and elderly will be enticed to gamble away their meager funds. Crime and corruption will increase, and families will be hurt through moral decline, increased gambling addiction, bankruptcies, domestic violence and divorce.

The Republican minority leader in the House, Rep. Brad Jones (R-North Reading), has filed what he calls "the most comprehensive gaming legislation ever." It would establish a gaming commission, permit two commercial casinos, facilitate a deal with the Indians and allow a total of 1,250 slot machines at dog and horse tracks.

Rep. Christopher P. Asselin (D-Springfield) calls for a total of three casinos to be located near Boston, Worcester and Springfield. Meanwhile, a bill filed by the Dean of the House, Rep. David Flynn (D-Bridgewater), calls for 1500 slot machines at each of the four racetracks in Massachusetts. There are other bills in the pipeline but most are not numbered yet.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Martha's Vineyard is exploring possible casino sites up to a thousand acres in size in southeastern Mass. The Nipmuc Tribe of central Mass. is also interested in opening a casino if they can win federal recognition.

Voters in the depressed city of Holyoke want to be first in line for a casino. They passed a non-binding ballot question last November in favor of a casino for gambling in their city.
Sen. Linda J. Melconian (D-Springfield) told the Swift gambling commission at a public hearing that Hampden County "must" have a casino if Massachusetts takes that route. She filed legislation that would direct 10 percent of the state's share of casino revenues to local development projects.

An eagerly awaited study by the Swift Administration's gambling commission concluded that the expansion of legalized gambling has the "potential to provide substantial new revenues to help fund state and local services," and could produce significant economic development. The Commission, however, advised that a careful cost/benefit assessment of the social and economic risks should be undertaken before proceeding.

The Romney Administration floated a proposal that would auction gaming rights in Massachusetts to out-of-state casino and track operators with the understanding that casinos would never be built here. The theory is that the gaming establishments in neighboring states would be happy to pay up to $20 million each for the assurance of not having to compete with Massachusetts. There has been no interest so far. In fact, Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire, said it would not pay "extortion money" to Massachusetts.

Although it has taken the Swift report under consideration, the Romney Administration is conducting its own gambling review that is due in early April. The Administration has said it is not opposed to gambling in principle, but is interested in expanding gambling if significant revenue could be generated.

The Governor and leaders of the House and Senate haven't expressed any principled objections to casino gambling. Their attitude so far seems to be, "Show me the money."
Governor Romney has said in the past that he would be willing to look at legalizing casinos if it pays significant revenue to the state. A spokesperson tells MassNews that Romney hasn't reached a decision yet, but is studying the pros and cons of the issue. She says the recent proposal leaked through an aide that would ban casinos in exchange for cash, is not a front-runner, but just one of many ideas on the table. Observers say the leaked proposal may be a sign that casino revenue projections do not look too good, and Romney may be backing off the idea of expanded gambling.

Spokeswoman for Senate President Robert Travaglini, Ann Dufresne, tells MassNews that gambling proposals are complex and need to be thoroughly examined, but all options are on the table to create revenues. Travaglini, who has two racetracks in his district, is reportedly in favor of slot machines for the tracks and a full-service casino that would be run by an Indian tribe.

House Speaker Tom Finneran, who has opposed expanded gambling in the past, has reportedly softened his position. Charlie Rasmussen, a spokesman for Finneran, tells MassNews the Speaker has consistently taken two positions on this issue that he admitted are somewhat contradictory. One position is that these economic times force everything to be on the table; however, he also feels that we have the most successful Lottery in the nation, if not the world, which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars for cities and towns annually. The speaker has to be convinced that there is something in casinos and slots that will make more money for Massachusetts, he says.

Clearly, there is growing momentum for casino gambling and Massachusetts can expect to see some debate over the issue on Beacon Hill. The Swift Gambling Commission in the introduction to their report summed up the present situation like this: "It is safe to say that gambling has ascended to the point where it is part of mainstream culture. The dual attractions of recreation and revenues appear to be driving this ascendancy. The difficult task facing our policymakers is developing a structure that provides economic balance along with social and cultural control.



 




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