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Patrick, DeLeo divided on track slot machines

Harmful effects worry governor

The issue could be critical for Patrick (left) and DeLeo. The issue could be critical for Patrick (left) and DeLeo.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 30, 2009

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With Beacon Hill set to revisit the issue of expanding gambling next year, Governor Deval Patrick and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo are at odds over a central element: whether Massachusetts should join a dozen other states in allowing slot machines at racetracks.

Even though both leading Democrats support bringing casino gambling to the state, their divergence on slots has emerged as a potentially major sticking point. DeLeo is in the process of crafting legislation that he says will authorize the state’s four racetracks to install slot machines, an approach that Patrick opposes.

“Slot parlors, ‘racinos’, or any other form of convenience gambling is not something I can support,’’ Patrick wrote earlier this month in a letter addressed to “Terry and Bob,’’ Senate President Therese Murray and DeLeo.

The governor reiterated his opposition last week when he met with reporters for an end-of-year briefing.

“I’m not trying to be a jerk here,’’ he said. “It’s just there is harm that is associated with gambling that has to be dealt with, and that’s the reason to go about this with extreme care. And that’s why I think the setting for this and the limited number of new settings matters.’’

The governor stopped short of saying he would veto a bill that authorizes slots at racetracks, saying it was “too early to start issuing veto threats.’’

DeLeo has been trying to appease track owners, who for years have been lobbying for the right to install slot machines at their facilities. He argues that slot machines, unlike casinos, can be put in quickly, within 90 to 150 days, he said.

“I’d look at the slots as a more immediate form of revenue for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,’’ DeLeo told State House News Service last week. “By the time we finish with resort casinos, it could be two, three, four, five years maybe for the whole process.’’

There would be a “natural progression’’ from slot machines to resort casinos, he said. The speaker added yesterday that he considers slot machines at racetracks to be “an important part of expanded gaming.’’

Murray has said she is willing to look at other proposals, but her preference, like the governor’s, is for resort-style casinos. Her position on slots at racetracks has not changed from several months ago, her spokesman said yesterday, when she told the Globe she was “not hot on that.’’

DeLeo is expected to file a bill in January or February. Both Patrick and Murray have been looking to the House to get the process started, and a variety of casino interests are lobbying and waiting to see what comes out.

The state’s two dog racetracks, Raynham Park and Wonderland Greyhound Park, had to stop running live races last week as a result of a ballot question that banned dog racing in Massachusetts. The other two racetracks, Suffolk Downs and Plainridge, have horse racing, but have also been pursuing casinos.

In March 2008, the House defeated a proposal that Patrick had pushed to license three resort casinos around the state. The opposition was led by Salvatore F. DiMasi, then the house speaker.

The likelihood of expanded gambling improved when DeLeo took over this year. The debate shifted from whether gambling would be expanded to what form it would take. (Some in the gambling industry have even started referring to the gambling timeline as B.D. and A.D., “Before DiMasi’’ and “After DiMasi.’’)

Last week, Patrick expressed frustration that lawmakers had postponed the casino debate until next year. Patrick faces reelection in November, and his advocacy of casino gambling was an issue that divided his liberal base. Legislators may also be wary of taking a difficult vote in a year when they, too, are running for reelection.

“We haven’t gotten, candidly, into much substance, because the House is still trying to sort out where they are and where they want to go,’’ Patrick added.

The debate is further complicated by the fact that the casino industry has struggled in the recession. Casino developers have been forced to scale back or cancel projects and focus instead on retaining their current properties. Some popular gambling sites have seen major dropoffs in revenue.

In his letter to DeLeo and Murray, Patrick said there “may be merit’’ in conducting, as gambling opponents have proposed, a “fresh, independent, and transparent analysis of the benefits and costs of expanded gaming.’’

But DeLeo rebuffed that idea yesterday.

“Because gaming has been extensively studied in recent years, I’m not sure a lengthy study in place of a bill is what we need right now,’’ he said. “Given our current economic situation, I think our focus ought to be on bringing jobs to the Commonwealth and not on more delay.’’

The 12 states that had slot machines at racetracks in 2008 provided $2.6 billion in tax revenue to state and local governments, according to the American Gaming Association. Racetrack owners in Massachusetts have been making their case that if they are not included in an expanded gambling proposal, they may have to shut their gates.

“If you put casinos and don’t authorize slots at racetracks, these tracks, including mine, are gone,’’ said Gary Piontkowski, owner of Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. “At some point you just can’t compete. You put additional gaming in . . . racetracks, it’s going to be a boon to the tracks and to the state.’’

Suffolk Downs in East Boston has been jockeying for expanded gambling for the past several years, securing key political backing, and trying to ensure that it has the inside track on a Boston-area casino. Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere has joined with Suffolk Downs to compete for one casino license and build the facility at Suffolk.

One option for those tracks would be to install slot machines at Suffolk Downs and then build a larger facility in phases.

“No matter what you call it, if expanded gaming is authorized at Suffolk Downs, we plan to build a world-class, resort-style destination and to put thousands of people to work right away to do that,’’ said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.