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Patrick to offer 3-casino plan

Governor Deval Patrick plans to propose as early as tomorrow that the state sell licenses for three full-scale resort casinos in Massachusetts, citing their potential to spur economic growth, create jobs, and generate new government revenue, according to State House officials who have been briefed on his plan.

Patrick will recommend that the casinos be licensed in three regions: Southeastern Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, and an area that includes Boston and points north, the officials said. His announcement will mark the culmination of months of study and the end of a long stretch of public silence on the subject of legalized gaming.

All three licenses would be put up for competitive bid, in a process that is expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in immediate and direct state revenue, the officials said.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe would have to outbid other competitors if it wishes to quickly proceed with its plans for a resort-style casino in Middleborough, the officials said. If the tribe decides against seeking a state license or fails to receive one in the bidding process, it could still proceed with a longer, more arduous federal approval process that could result in a fourth Massachusetts casino.

The governor will not recommend allowing slot machines at the state's financially struggling horse and dog tracks, the officials said, a decision which is sure to set off protests and a major lobbying push in the Legislature from the politically powerful track operators.

The officials agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity because the governor had yet to make his announcement.

Only part of Patrick's proposal was outlined yesterday by the officials, and key details - including how much new cash the state could expect and how many jobs Patrick administration officials believe the three casinos will create - were withheld.

In other states with licensed casinos, initial license fees have generated hundreds of millions of dollars, and states garner hundreds of millions more each year in their share of gambling proceeds.

The officials who have been briefed on Patrick's plan said the governor will justify his decision to embrace casinos with the same arguments made by gambling proponents: that licensed casino gambling will create thousands of new jobs, spur growth in travel and tourism, and provide the state with a key stream of new revenue to augment income and sales taxes.

Patrick will argue that the casino resorts will be an important part of a larger economic development program, which includes a $1 billion life science initiative, an aggressive renewable energy program, and a $1.5 billion capital spending plan.

"The governor is saying that this is an important part of his overall economic strategy to ensure he meets his goal for economic activity and create 100,000 new jobs over the next four years," one of the officials said.

According to the officials, Patrick, in framing the arguments to back his endorsement of expanded gambling, will tout the potential economic benefits to the state more than the financial benefits to the fiscally strapped state government.

But the lure to state budgeters is clear: Patrick and other leaders are searching for billions of dollars needed to repair bridges and roads, improve education, and provide cities and towns with property tax relief.

When Patrick presents his plan, which is scheduled to be tomorrow, his announcement will be seen as a political watershed for his administration.

The announcement will also mark the beginning of a new stage of the casino debate, one that will focus increasingly on the Legislature, which will be required to approve the governor's plan if it is to move forward.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi is publicly opposed to casinos while Senate President Therese Murray is among gambling's key supporters.

A move into gambling could dramatically alter the market for gambling throughout the region and set off new competition. Proponents have contended that Massachusetts is in a good position to pick up casino revenue that is currently going to Connecticut, where there are two large casinos that attract legions of Massachusetts gamblers and others from throughout New England.

In making his decision to endorse casino resorts, Patrick will be going against many of his close political allies and a good chunk of his Democratic base, including liberals who see gambling as a regressive tax that takes money from those in the lower income brackets to ease the financial burdens of the more affluent.

Those critics, including House leaders, say the financial gains are illusory. They say expanded gambling would create social problems and will hook state political leaders and Beacon Hill budget writers on gambling revenues, while providing few long-term economic benefits. They also say that expanding gambling with Las Vegas-like resorts will change the historic and cultural character of Massachusetts forever.

But a recent study said that there is $1.5 billion in annual unmet market demand for gambling.

A line of pent-up casino proposals bears out the assertion that market forces favor gambling.

The Mashpee Wampanoags have proposed a $1 billion casino in Middleborough, estimating their facility alone could generate up to $200 million to $250 million a year in additional state revenue.

Other gambling interests, including another Wampanoag tribe from Martha's Vineyard, the owners of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, and Suffolk Downs race track in Boston, are also vying for casino licenses.

Billionaire casino developer Sheldon Adelson is talking with legislative leaders about a casino on Interstate 495 where it intersects with the turnpike.

Patrick faces a difficult task in persuading DiMasi, a longtime opponent of expanded gambling, to switch his position, according to senior Beacon Hill figures. The House has consistently, and by wide margins, defeated pro-casino and increased gaming plans over the last decade.

As Patrick studied the issue this summer, DiMasi made statements that have led many to suspect that he is softening his position. His press aide, David Guarino, said late last week that the speaker is keeping an open mind to any arguments that Patrick makes for casinos.

But those who have talked to DiMasi privately in recent weeks come away with the clear impression that his opposition to expanded gambling remains firm and that his comments were made in deference to Patrick.

"It will take a lot of convincing to bring the speaker around," said one senior legislative official.

On the other side, gambling has galvanized proponents who think it will give the state an important economic boost.

"At the end of the day, you would have $400 million to $450 million a year in new revenue," said Senate Ways and Means chairman Steven C. Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat, referring to the state's projected take from the three proposed casinos.

He said the money would go a long way toward helping the state pay to repair roads and crumbling bridges, and offer property tax relief to communities.

"It is not going to solve all our problems, but will go a long way in helping us deal with them," he said.

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