Casino bill pushed through legislature

BOSTON -- Like a train roaring down a track, Massachusetts casino legislation has gained steam and appears unstoppable. On Oct. 13, state senators voted 24-14 in favor of a gaming bill that would legalize three resort casinos and one slots parlor.

A similar bill passed in the state House on Sept. 14 by a margin of nearly 4-1. In both, the casinos would be located in three regions, outlined by the legislation, and the casino in the southeast would be offered first to Native American tribes. House Speaker Robert DeLeo predicted that the first slot parlor could open within a year, followed by casinos about two years later.

"It's a travesty that both houses of the legislature are racing forward after fool's gold," said Kristian Mineau, president of Massachusetts Family Institute. Legislators are trying to push the bill through as "emergency legislation," which Mineau called a "ploy" to make it more difficult for citizens to take action against it.

The differences between the two bills must be resolved in conference committee before the bill can reach the desk of Gov. Deval Patrick, who has pledged to sign it.

Last year, a casino bill reached the desk of the governor but was left unsigned. The material difference being that the bill included three casinos and two slot parlors -- where Patrick had promised not to approve any bill with more than one stand-alone slots location.

Mineau called casinos and slots a "regressive tax on the poor." Video slots, whose revenue casinos depend on, are the most addictive form of gambling and fleece citizens of their hard-earned wages.

"This will forever change the topography and social atmosphere of Massachusetts," he warned and urged citizens to call the governor.

Staunchly opposed to all expanded gambling in the commonwealth, the four bishops of Massachusetts urged the Senate not to follow the House's example. In a Sept. 16 statement, the bishops acknowledged the current economic landscape, noting that unemployment remains high and saying that it is only natural for the state to intercede.

"However, expanded gambling in the form of slot parlors and casinos is an illusory solution to this complicated problem. If anything, expanded, predatory gambling will only add to the need for state assistance in the commonwealth," they said.

They added that the gaming industry depends on addicted gamblers, harms small businesses and threatens the "moral fabric of our society." It would also increase the state's dependence on unstable gaming revenue, which has seen a decline in other states.

Supporters of expanding gambling in the Bay State say the measure will create thousands of jobs and bring in hundreds of millions of new tax dollars. The bills appropriate 25 percent of casino revenue and 40 percent of slots revenue to go back to the state and local communities. In the short term, each casino license bid starts at $85 million.

"This is an economic development bill," Senate President Therese Murray said after the vote. "It's going to create jobs, and we have over 250,000 people out of work in the commonwealth."

No study has yet been done of both the costs and benefits of such legislation. The only study, produced by the gambling industry in 2008, expects that the state's current economic woes will be in the past by the time casinos arrive. It neglects to factor in the consequences of other bordering states like New York and New Hampshire legalizing casinos. It also never considers the social costs of excessive gambling. Critics say that these oversights lead the study to greatly overestimate revenue and job creation.

In an Oct. 11 report, a group opposed to casinos called such numbers "wildly optimistic." Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts (CSM) released analysis, which said that the casino bill's effects have been "blissfully overestimated."

The money spent at casinos would be diverted from another source. The group predicted that much of it would come from household spending. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that for every $1 million taken from such spending in Massachusetts, the state loses 8.2 jobs.

The CSM report said that based on predicted tax revenue, hundreds of millions of dollars would be diverted, which would kill thousands of jobs. The numbers are similar to the predictions from the other side about permanent jobs created.

"The public is being sold a bill of goods and our new analysis should blow the rose-colored glasses off proponents and force them to rethink this poor excuse for economic development and local aid," said Scot Harbarger, president of the organization and former Massachusetts attorney general.

The differences between the two bills, which still need to be worked out, include several amendments that passed with the Senate bill. One would bar lawmakers from working in the casino industry for at least one year after leaving office. Another would ease happy hour restrictions at pubs and restaurants, giving the establishments an opportunity to offer drink specials in competition with the casinos.

The Senate also passed an amendment aimed at allowing voters in Boston and Worcester to have more say about a casino in their backyard. As the House bill stands, those two populaces would not have the right to vote collectively. Instead, the ward where the casino was proposed would have the only say. The Senate amendment would allow a citywide vote only if the City Council requested one.