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DeLeo to pitch for slots, casinos

Sees gambling at tracks, resorts; revenue to boost jobs, speaker says

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / March 4, 2010

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, reigniting what is sure to be a contentious debate, will outline his blueprint for expanded gambling today, saying the state should legalize both slot machines at racetracks and resort-style casinos, according to a person familiar with his plans.

In a speech on job creation to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, DeLeo will propose that the state sell licenses to the developers of slots and casinos, according to the person, who was not authorized to reveal details of the speaker’s plan and asked for anonymity. A portion of that revenue would be dedicated to a special fund to help Massachusetts manufacturers with capital investments, with the goal of keeping struggling employers afloat and encouraging others to move to the state, the person said.

It was unclear how specific DeLeo will be today in unveiling his gambling proposal. The speaker plans to file a bill in the House within the next two weeks.

His speech to the Chamber of Commerce promises to kick off debate on an issue that could dominate the spring agenda at the State House, in the midst of another tough budget year and election-year politicking.

DeLeo - a Winthrop Democrat whose district includes two racetracks, Suffolk Downs in Boston and Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere - has been a longtime supporter of allowing slots at the tracks. He has signaled for weeks that he intends to include slots as part of the House’s gambling bill.

But that will put him at odds with Governor Deval Patrick, who has been cool to the idea of slot machines and prefers to see resort-style casinos. Patrick has not said definitively, however, that he would veto a bill that authorizes slots.

A Patrick spokesman said last night that the administration would not comment on DeLeo’s proposal, because it had not seen the plan.

Senate President Therese Murray has been open to expanded gambling, but skeptical of slots at the tracks, which critics say do not result in a significant number of new jobs.

It was Patrick who, in 2007, first pushed expanded gaming, as a way to collect some of the revenue that proponents say that states with casinos, particularly Connecticut, get from Massachusetts gamblers.

Patrick proposed building three casinos in three regions of the state, a plan that the governor said would have generated $450 million in revenue, 20,000 jobs, and $2 billion in economic activity. But the House speaker at the time - Salvatore F. DiMasi, a staunch gambling opponent - led the drive by which the House killed the plan, by a vote of 108 to 46, in March 2008.

DiMasi had argued that revenues from the casinos would be offset by a “casino culture’’ of social and economic costs, including lost business at tourist destinations.

Since that defeat, Patrick has backed off the issue, allowing legislators in recent months to take the lead in crafting a new proposal.

The debate is sure to reverberate in the governor’s race, however. Patrick, who is running for reelection, has not made casinos a major part of his platform, cognizant that some of his supporters strongly oppose them.

DeLeo’s speech today is yet another sign that DiMasi’s resignation from the House has dramatically altered the political terrain on Beacon Hill and increased the chances that casino gambling will be legalized in Massachusetts.

State Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, a Revere Democrat and gambling supporter, applauded DeLeo for pushing an expansion of gambling.

“It’s a great way to create more jobs and build more jobs for middle-class families,’’ she said.

Opponents, led by the group United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, have vowed to fight plans to expand gambling, saying that the promised revenues will not materialize and that the social costs will be great.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.