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Paul McMorrow

DeLeo opening casino door to tribes

By Paul McMorrow
May 10, 2010

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ROBERT DeLEO wants to bring legalized gambling to Massachusetts. He wants two casinos and slots at four racing tracks, and right now, it looks like he’s going to get his wish.

And, potentially, a lot more. In DeLeo’s rush to appease the building trades and carve out some action for the two racetracks in his district, the speaker of the House is setting the table for a gambling expansion in Massachusetts that has the potential to be far broader than anything he’s pitching. He’s opening the door to new gambling halls on Martha’s Vineyard and the Cape, in Middleborough and Fall River. It’s also something neither he, nor anyone else on Beacon Hill, can control.

Forget, for a second, all the reasons we know we should worry about legalized gambling — its regressive nature, the way it cannibalizes money that would otherwise be spent at local businesses, the negligible benefits it offers strained government budgets, the staggering social and regulatory costs. None of that has swayed DeLeo, or anybody else on Beacon Hill whose opinion actually matters these days. Two years ago, the Legislature was debating whether to legalize casinos at all; now the body is just wondering how many to greenlight.

The Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah, the state’s two federally recognized Native American tribes, have each expressed serious interest in owning a gleaming gambling hall. They haven’t been able to follow through on those urges because, legally, they can’t.

The tribes are sovereign, but they’re only allowed to set up a gambling shop at the highest level of gaming that’s legal in their home state. Right now, they could peddle scratch tickets, or maybe hop into the high-stakes bingo game. There’s no serious money in either pursuit. That changes the moment the governor signs a casino bill into law this summer. Each will be freed to set up gaming operations on their tribal land, on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard. And the state wouldn’t be able to touch a dime of whatever rolls in.

There is a bit of fine print to tackle first. A Supreme Court decision has stalled the Mashpee Wampanoag effort to take land into federal trust, establishing a sovereign homeland. Still, anyone who thinks Congress will not eventually override the decision is wholly unfamiliar with Congress and with money; money and Congress, though, are by no means strangers.

Clearly, state-backed gambling enterprises will get rolling before any potential tribal enterprises. These things have life cycles of years, not months, though. The Mashpee Wampanoag fought for decades for federal recognition. In that context, the difference between a groundbreaking in 2010 and 2015 isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. And anyone who thinks the gaming interests that form partnerships with tribes are afraid of competition should take a drive up the California coast, where every exit seems to feature a gambling outpost.

The speaker, who has assumed a leadership role in pushing gambling in the Commonwealth, is fond of quoting figures. He says he knows how many jobs will materialize, and how much cash will flow to cities and towns. His guys have it all figured out. Except that they don’t. They have no idea how many gaming operations the state will eventually wind up hosting. These things can change quickly. And they’re completely beyond Beacon Hill’s reach. Until 2007, the Mashpee Wampanoag weren’t a federally recognized tribe; months later, they had financial backers, and were talking about gobbling up more than 500 acres in Middleborough.

The Legislature hasn’t appeared to be preoccupied with asking questions about the ramifications of votes it takes. DeLeo, in particular, has been steering the effort to broaden gambling’s reach and install 3,000 slot machines at the state’s four racetracks (only two of which still feature actual racing, but let’s not nitpick).

Two of those four — Suffolk Downs and Wonderland — lie in the speaker’s district. Suffolk essentially controls Wonderland, a greyhound track rotten with debt; DeLeo’s version of the gambling legislation would hand Suffolk’s politically wired ownership half of the state’s slots market, giving it a virtual lock on one of the two full casino licenses the state will be selling off. That’s the point, really.

DeLeo rose to his post at Sal DiMasi’s right hand. DeLeo was responsible for divvying up the state budget’s spoils — a process that has long rewarded leadership’s allies, and delivered punishing blows to political enemies. His path into DiMasi’s old office was cleared with budgetary earmarks.

The casino debate shows DeLeo still playing the part of the two-bit committee chairman. DeLeo has yet to fully grasp that the speaker’s office is a statewide position. Here he is, about to dramatically reshape the state’s economic landscape, and he’s obsessing over his district, his neighborhood guys, the tracks he grew up visiting. From the beginning, he has been out to get a piece of the action for his two tracks. And now he’s on the cusp. Once he opens that door, though, he should watch out — that’s when things get interesting.

Paul McMorrow is a staff writer for Banker & Tradesman.

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