Joan Vennochi

Path is clear for slots, casinos

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 1, 2011

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POLITICS AND the greed of competing interests once kept gambling from expanding in the Commonwealth. Minus that drama, casinos and slots are headed to Massachusetts.

A deal was cut after months of closed-door negotiations between the governor, Senate president, and House speaker. Opponents are worn out. Now, they’re talking more about how to regulate gambling and less about how to stop the latest plan for three casinos and one slots-only facility.

For almost two decades, casino developers, racetrack owners, and Native American tribes have been trying to elbow each other aside as they grasp for gambling riches. Last year, Governor Deval Patrick, who has supported so-called resort casinos in the past, backed away from the issue when he needed gambling opponents on his side for reelection. After pretending it wasn’t a priority, he quickly tiptoed back into quiet deal-making with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray. Patrick never fulfilled the pledge that he made on Dec. 9, 2009, to seek a “fresh, independent and transparent analysis of the benefits and costs of expanded gambling.’’

But few people seem to care that the rosy job and revenue projections proponents link to expanded gambling in Massachusetts are based on a study that was first produced in 2008 and updated in 2010. Competition from bordering states is also shrugged off as inconsequential. If the numbers don’t add up as predicted, the resulting budget shortfalls will be someone else’s problem.

Meanwhile, where’s the skepticism about who will actually get whichever jobs are created? According to Scott Harshbarger, the former attorney general who heads a group that opposes expanded gambling, the proposed bill includes not one word that would stop lawmakers from representing gambling interests, or from recommending employees, including family members. Without such safeguards written into law, the same patronage system that larded the Probation Department with relatives of Beacon Hill pols will soon operate in casino bars, restaurants, gaming tables, and lobbying operations.

“If this is really about jobs and revenue for the people, what’s the harm in sticking in a provision that none of your relatives could be hired anywhere in the gaming business?’’ asks David F. D’Alessandro, the former chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services, who has given nearly $50,000 to Harshbarger’s group.

You can be for gambling or against it, and still wonder who is really going to hit the jackpot. You might also wonder why the public seems blissfully unaware of the outrages and scandals that are sure to arise.

Harshbarger, who said he is still reading through the 155-page gambling bill, also said it appears to smooth the path for Suffolk Downs, where House Speaker Robert DeLeo has close ties. And sure enough, before the dust rises on a single casino construction site, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that Moody’s Investors Services predicts big gains for two Las Vegas-based companies: Caesars Entertainment Corp., which has a deal in place with Suffolk Downs, and International Game Technology, a slots supplier.

It’s funny how the same story repeats itself in Massachusetts. For all the periodic outrage over corrupt deal-making and political patronage, Bay Staters pay scant attention to the sausage-making.

But now is the time, when the bill is still pending, to call for provisions that prohibit lawmakers and their relatives from any casino-related or gambling industry job. Now is the time to demand that casino-generated revenue go directly into the rainy day fund, rather than allow lawmakers to siphon it off for pet causes, or borrow against inflated revenue projections.

There is still a little time left to question whether the benefits really outweigh the costs. Proponents of this bill hail the money it sets aside for treatment of gambling addictions, as if it is somehow praiseworthy to create more addicts and then treat them. By the same logic, perhaps Dana-Farber should urge more people to take up smoking so it can obtain research grants to help treat cancer patients.

There’s nothing creative about casinos. They are not economic game-changers. The unemployment rate in Nevada is among the highest in the nation. And even as gambling sucks money away from people who can’t afford to lose a penny, it also makes a much smaller universe of casino and slots interests outrageously rich.

That universe is fighting for casinos and slots in Massachusetts. And unfortunately, their greedy rivalry may not be enough to do them in this time.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at