WHETHER CASINO gambling will become a force for economic development in Massachusetts depends entirely on the form it takes. A bill passed by the House authorizes two destination casinos, complete with hotels, retail, and entertainment — but also slot machine parlors at the state’s two horse tracks and two former dog tracks. On Friday, Senate leaders offered their own bill, which is slated for debate this week. Similar to an earlier proposal by Governor Patrick, it proposes three casinos and no special favors for racetracks. Many more details need to be worked out, but the Senate bill is clearly superior.
Despite legitimate fears about addiction and other social ills, lawmakers are sensibly concluding that they can’t sit idly by while many Massachusetts residents who aren’t problem gamblers spend hundreds of millions of dollars at Connecticut casinos. Sticky issues remain, however. For one, where should the casinos be located?
Under the House bill, bidders for two resort casino licenses would be free to propose locations anywhere in the state, subject to the approval of a five-member gaming commission. The Senate would place one casino in each of three different regions, which roughly correspond to eastern, southeastern, and western Massachusetts.
If the primary goal of allowing casinos is to promote decent jobs with good benefits, then the Senate bill better protects the entire state by ensuring that the jobs are spread around. Casino operators would gladly cluster their facilities around densely settled Greater Boston. But the need for job growth is greater in other areas of the state.
Both bills leave open some possibility of a showdown with the state’s federally designated Indian tribes. Under US law, the tribes have a separate path to getting casinos authorized, but it could be a long and difficult process. The Mashpee Wampanoag already have taken steps to establish a casino in Fall River. And they can move faster if they get a license from the state. But they argue that, as a sovereign tribe with rights under federal law, they shouldn’t have to pay the same taxes to the state as other commercial operators. The Senate bill would require them to do so as a condition of a state license, while the House bill is more open to negotiation.
Senate leaders are right to take a tougher stance. A state license would be valuable for a tribe, because it represents a much quicker way to open a casino, and would limit potential competition. The state should seek a healthy return from all casinos, whether owned by investors or tribes. And while it’s beneficial to Massachusetts for tribes to take part in the state licensing competition rather than taking the federal route, any specific proposal for Fall River must be carefully vetted on its own merits.
Lawmakers must still debate a host of other details, from capital investment requirements to regulatory structures. The Senate measure gets at least the basic shape right. But lawmakers must work carefully to reconcile the two bills while Massachusetts makes peace with legalized gambling.