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Mayors hold valuable cards in Patrick's casino push

Email|Print| Text size + By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / February 17, 2008

Governor Deval Patrick is drawing a mixed reaction in the region as he looks to municipal leaders statewide to build support for his casino plan.

Last week, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray met with a group of about 20 mayors to solicit their assistance in selling the proposal to license three resort-style casinos. The plan remains stalled in the Legislature.

In interviews last week, several municipal leaders said they back the governor's casino plan or are open to it, citing the financial relief it could bring to financially strapped municipalities.

"I'm very supportive and willing to do whatever I can to help the cause," said Lawrence Mayor Michael J. Sullivan, who attended the meeting with Murray.

Noting that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is pursuing at the federal level its proposal to open a casino in Middleborough, Sullivan said he would rather the state license casinos itself, thus ensuring it realizes benefits from them.

"When you look at job creation, the tax revenue it would bring in to help cities and towns," and the funding the governor's plan sets aside to deal with compulsive gambling, "I think it's time that Massachusetts gets really up to speed," he said.

But Woburn Mayor Thomas L. McLaughlin, while sharing the governor's desire to see the Legislature take up the casino plan, is not sold on the proposal, saying he wants to hear more public discussion.

"I'd like it to be vetted at the state Legislature," he said.

And some officials have questioned the governor's proposed use of casino income to cover part of next fiscal year's lottery aid to cities and towns, saying it puts them at a risk of losing that money.

"My concern is this funding is predicated on receiving these funds and it's not a sure thing," said Theresa Walsh, the town accountant in Pepperell.

Patrick has estimated that the three casinos would generate 20,000 permanent jobs and $400 million in annual state revenue, along with $900 million in licensing fees.

His fiscal 2009 budget plan includes $124 million in licensing fee revenue to cover a projected drop in lottery revenue used for local aid. The governor also proposes $88 million of that revenue go to transportation and other local infrastructure projects, and $88 million in local property tax relief.

In a telephone interview, Murray said the outreach on the casino plan is part of an effort by the administration to work closely with municipal leaders.

"Obviously, the piece of the casino proposal that is of real interest to mayors and other municipal officials is that it brings additional money back to cities and towns, and to homeowners in terms of property taxes," Murray said. "The mayors are important, influential, and arguably have some of the toughest jobs in terms of delivering basic services that people rely on day in and day out. And the governor and I understand that and want to try to give them the tools and the resources."

State Representative William Greene Jr., a Billerica Democrat who has not taken a position on the casino plan, said he does not object to the governor asking local officials to promote the proposal. "That's part of getting a bill through."

Greene said he will always listen to what officials have to say, but added, "This is a major step for the Commonwealth, and I think I have to really take a very hard look at it before I make up my mind."

Like Sullivan, Methuen Mayor William Manzi is on board with the governor's plan.

"No matter how you cut the additional revenues, it enables the state to be more generous in local aid," he said. "The healthier the state is, the healthier we will be."

Lowell Mayor Edward "Bud" Caulfield also backs the governor's plan and is ready to help promote it, citing his city's vital need for additional state aid.

Noting the number of Massachusetts residents who travel to casinos in Connecticut, he said, "That money is leaving our state, and Connecticut is reaping the benefits of it. I can't see where it would hurt to put at least a casino in Boston. It would certainly help with our revenues, with local aid."

Arlington Town Manager Brian F. Sullivan said that based on what he knows now, he supports the casino plan. "Given the dire situation many cities and towns are in, I think we owe it to everyone to look at this very seriously and to do it expeditiously."

Medford Mayor Michael J. McGlynn has not taken a firm position on the governor's proposal. He said that before signing on to a casino plan, he needs to be assured that cities and towns would see no reduction in their lottery aid and that additional money would be directed to them from the casinos.

"That's the only way it makes sense to me," McGlynn said.

Chelmsford Town Manager Paul E. Cohen said he is open to the governor's proposal if it provides for growth in direct local aid to cities and towns. It is not clear to him that it would, he said.

Some officials said they do not object to Patrick's inclusion of casino revenue in the budget. Sullivan said it is reasonable, given the timeline the administration has outlined for licensing casinos. Caulfield said it is a "great strategy" because it focused attention on the looming deficit in the revenue that funds local aid.

But while he said he could understand Patrick's strategy, McLaughlin believes it is "very dubious" that the state will be collecting any casino fees in the coming fiscal year.

Brad Jones of North Reading, the House minority leader, also opposes the governor's budget action, stating: "Whether cities and towns get the local aid they deserve shouldn't be tied to whether the governor gets his casino plan or not." The House Republican caucus last week unveiled a petition making that argument that was drafted by the caucus and signed by more than 140 local officials.

"The governor said in his State of the Commonwealth that we want action," Murray said. Referring to the casino plan, he said: "I think it's not unreasonable to ask for there to be hearings and a debate and a vote before the budget is finalized."

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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