House leaders have planned a hearing today that could tarnish Governor Deval Patrick's proposal to license three casinos in Massachusetts, opening debate with a lineup of specialists who will describe in detail the social dangers of gambling.
By focusing on gambling ills so soon after the governor filed his bill on Oct. 11, casino opponents in the House have assured that the most negative aspects will be aired on Beacon Hill before Patrick gets a chance to present his proposal in full.
The Senate will not participate in the maneuver. While the informational hearing is being sponsored by two joint committees of the House and Senate, only House members will attend. Some senators, who have generally been more receptive to the governor's bill than House members, suggested that the House's move was unfair to the governor.
"If you're going to give the guy a fair shake, you should schedule a hearing on the casino bill and then, if necessary, ask other committees to hold hearings," said Senator Michael W. Morrissey, Democrat of Quincy and a casino proponent. "Have the governor's bill up first and go from there."
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who has been openly skeptical of Patrick's plan to license three resort casinos around the state, has said that hearings on the full bill will not be held until next year.
David Guarino, spokesman for DiMasi, said yesterday the hearing will be the first of many to scrutinize various aspects of the concept.
"The governor has proposed opening the door to a casino culture in the Commonwealth," he said. "We think it's imperative to look at what that will really mean, warts and all."
In addition to social costs, he said the House would be examining other aspects of legalized gaming including economics and the effect on the state lottery.
In promoting his gambling plan, Patrick has said he recognizes that there will be a social cost in bankruptcies and addiction.
But he said those effects can be minimized and would be outweighed by the benefits to the state in the form of 20,000 new jobs and $2 billion in economic activity.
The Patrick administration declined to respond yesterday to the suggestion by some senators that today's House hearing was unfair.
It will be sending a Cabinet official, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, to describe the administration's plans to combat social problems associated with casinos, including a pledge to spend 2.5 percent of gross gambling revenues on fighting addiction and other public health programs.
"We have a very comprehensive list of recommendations and believe this is one of the strongest public health approaches to addressing gambling in the country," said Bigby.
Today's hearing will be presided over by two casino opponents, Representative Ruth B. Balser, Democrat of Newton, and Representative Daniel E. Bosley, Democrat of North Adams. They are the House chairmen of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, respectively.
Among those expected to testify are Kathleen Scanlan, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling; Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; and the directors of three substance abuse programs.
Balser said academic researchers also will detail the effects of gambling on the brain and describe how certain electronic machines induce players to keep gambling.
Balser said she was not trying to torpedo Patrick's casino plan before it has a hearing.
"We have in no way stacked this," she said. "This is an attempt to educate legislators on the nature of gambling addiction."
She said she did not know how the witnesses viewed an expansion of gaming in the state.
"People don't always know about mental illness and addiction in general and in particularly around gambling," she said. "This hearing will give them an opportunity to learn about those illnesses."
Senator Mark C. Montigny, vice chairman of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies committee, said that it is not unheard of for Senate or House members of a joint committee to hold a hearing without their colleagues in the other chamber, particularly on an issue as divisive as casino gambling.
"Ideally you do this at the joint committee, but it isn't necessarily a negative to do it this way," he said. "I'm only concerned that I get the truth."
Scanlan said that she is not opposed to casino gambling, but that state officials should recognize there will be "people who are devastated by it."
State officials, she said, should work to prevent casual players from becoming addicts.
"We want to raise the awareness that there is a risk involved and tell people, here are the ways to avoid getting caught up in the addiction," she said.