A fervent lobbying campaign by area mayors, supportive lawmakers, and racetrack owners hungry for millions of dollars in new money is fueling an especially strong push to bring thousands of slot machines to Massachusetts, giving the legislation perhaps its best shot to date of winning passage on Beacon Hill.
The House is expected to take up the contentious issue next month, and supporters and opponents of expanded gambling agree this is the closest the state has come to allowing slot machines. If House supporters can muster enough votes to override a probable veto by Governor Mitt Romney, slot machines could conceivably be up and running within a year.
The dynamic is markedly different today than the last time a slot machine bill came up, in 2003, when former House speaker Thomas Finneran, an avowed opponent, lobbied rank-and-file members to defeat the legislation.
Since then, Salvatore F. DiMasi has taken over as speaker. Though he has voted against similar measures in the past, DiMasi tends to let members vote on measures he doesn't necessarily support. Slot machine proponents believe most House members want expanded gambling because they expect a flood of additional revenue. The Senate for the first time endorsed slot machines last fall, voting 26 to 9 after Senate President Robert E. Travaglini -- whose district would benefit significantly -- made clear he wanted it to pass.
Supporters contend that slot machines would generate about $350 million annually for the state, as well as $100 million in initial start-up license fees, though critics say the economic benefit is being grossly exaggerated. Several mayors, including Thomas M. Menino of Boston and the mayors of Worcester, Lynn, and Revere, have pushed for slot machines as a way to preserve jobs at the tracks and raise new tax revenue. The potential windfall tantalizes public officials at all levels.
''I think the tenor has changed," said state Representative Brian P. Wallace, a Boston Democrat and proponent of expanded gambling who believes more than 90 colleagues in the House -- easily a majority -- would vote with him.
But supporters' optimism is tempered because of a significant obstacle: Romney's expected veto would mean they would need a two-thirds majority in both branches. Even the most ardent proponents are not sure they have the 106 votes necessary to override Romney's veto in the House.
It's unclear exactly what gambling legislation the House will take up next month; DiMasi declined to be interviewed. But House members expect some version of a slot machine bill to come up as they debate a related measure on simulcasting rights for the racetracks. The Senate version would allow up to 2,000 slot machines at each of the state's four racetracks -- Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Raynham Park in Raynham, and Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville.
Track owners see a tremendous opportunity to make money. They say they need slot machines to save their dying industry, and they've spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and campaign contributions to lawmakers to make the point.
To the tracks and their supporters, it's a no-brainer. Until Massachusetts allows slot machines, they say, the state will continue to lose out on millions of dollars in tax revenue every year as residents travel to gambling emporiums in Connecticut and Rhode Island. ''Here we are, we're betting it, and they're getting the money," said Gary T. Piontkowski, the president of Plainridge.
Massachusetts would join 11 states that have legalized slot machines at racetracks, also called racinos, according to the American Gaming Association.
But the chief opponent in the House, state Representative Daniel E. Bosley, is adamant that the legalization of slot machines won't produce any financial windfall. He's confident his colleagues will vote the bill down once he has a chance to prove that to them.
''As it comes up every few years I always hear that 'the support's there, the support's there," said Bosley, a North Adams Democrat. ''And then we beat it back rather handily."
Bosley contends that the purported new slot machine revenue would be offset by additional costs to the state -- including the expense of administering and overseeing the expanded gambling -- and by sucking money from other places, particularly the state lottery, which generates millions of dollars for cities and towns.
Bosley and other opponents acknowledge that the pro-slots camp is invigorated.
''The fact that it's passed the Senate requires that we put in extra efforts to defeat it in the House," said state Senator Susan C. Tucker, an Andover Democrat and one of the Legislature's most vocal opponents of slot machines.
The high stakes have been evident on Beacon Hill in recent months. Lobbyists for the four tracks -- and for organizations such as the AFL-CIO -- have been a frequent presence at the State House. Track employees have spent many days in front of the building trying to rally support, clutching homemade signs and coffee in the rain and wind. And some close to the debate say the nation's biggest gambling companies are closely watching what happens in hopes of possibly investing here. (Harrah's, a leading casino company, spent $60,000 on a local lobbyist last year.)
Some proponents of the slots, sensing the political opportunity, are raising the specter of using the promised revenue to extend healthcare coverage to the uninsured, which is a dominant issue on Beacon Hill right now.
Travaglini suggested as much last fall.
Other supporters are concerned about the local impact. ''This is about putting teachers back in the classroom, police and firefighters on the streets, keeping our libraries open, our senior centers open," said Mayor Tim Murray of Worcester, who is running for lieutenant governor. He said Worcester would get an extra $5 million annually.
Menino ''views this as an economic issue, one of preserving jobs in our city," said spokesman Seth Gitell.
But opponents also have influential voices on their side. State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who opposes slot machines at the racetracks, said it's an open question how much the lottery would be affected. But he's convinced it will suffer.
''I don't think there's any question the lottery will get hurt," Cahill said. Another wild card is what happens with a ballot question voters will see this November that seeks to ban greyhound racing in Massachusetts.
It's one of many dimensions of what's sure to be among the most closely watched debates at the State House this spring. ''Honestly, I couldn't tell you where it stands right now," said Thomas Carney, whose family runs Raynham Park. ''I do think it's probably our best chance we've had."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.