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Mass. Senate approves casino gambling bill

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / October 13, 2011

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BOSTON—The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved a casino gambling bill that supporters argued would create thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions in new tax revenue but that critics predicted would bring grim social consequences that outweigh any economic benefits.

The 24-14 vote followed several days of debate during which senators adopted dozens of amendments while rejecting more than 100 others. The next step in the process will be resolving differences between the Senate bill and a similar one passed by the House last month.

Both versions call for three resort-style casinos and one slots parlor in Massachusetts. One of the casinos would be in the eastern part of the state, one in the western area and one in southeastern Massachusetts. Bids for the casinos would start at $85 million, and one of the three licenses would go to a federally recognized American Indian tribe.

Twenty-five percent of casino revenue and 40 percent of slots revenue would be returned to the state and its cities and towns.

"This is an economic development bill," said Senate President Therese Murray after the vote. "It's going to create jobs and we have over 250,000 people out of work in the Commonwealth and that's why we are doing this."

Opponents of the bill said they were disappointed but not surprised by the vote.

"I continue to believe that this is the wrong direction for Massachusetts to go in," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston. "Bringing casinos to Massachusetts in order to close our budget gap is a tax on the poor. It's another way of taxing poor and working-class families."

Foes say casinos bring with them increased crime, addictive gambling and a variety of other social ills. And they have questioned the economic figures offered by supporters.

Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, said casinos will negatively affect smaller communities with higher public safety costs, environmental problems and traffic congestion. He was also worried about "families that might otherwise go to a restaurant or a museum or a show (but) will spend their discretionary money at a casino."

Shortly before final passage, the Senate approved an amendment that could allow for a citywide referendum in Boston before a casino could be located in the city. While the bill only calls for a vote by residents of the neighborhood where a casino is proposed, the amendment would expand that to a citywide vote if the City Council requested one.

The same procedure would apply to Worcester, the state's second largest city. In all other cities and towns, a vote of the entire community would be required before a casino could be built.

The amendment is among a number of differences between the House and Senate bills that must be worked out by a six-member conference committee that could be appointed within days. Senators also approved several other provisions that were not in the House version, including one that would bar lawmakers from working in the casino industry for at least one year after leaving office.

Another Senate amendment could ease restrictions on happy hour in Massachusetts by giving all of the state's bars and restaurants the same ability as casinos to offer free or discounted drinks to customers.

Critics say such a change could lead to more drunken driving accidents and deaths. But Murray said it was only offered in the interest of fairness.

"I don't think it was meant to put happy hour back," the Senate leader said Thursday morning, before the vote, in an interview with WATD-FM. "I think it was meant to make a level playing field for restaurants outside the casino area because casinos offer free drinks inside if you are gambling."

Sen. Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and a casino supporter, said he didn't view differences between the two branches as an obstacle to final passage of the bill.

"I don't think it's the differences but the similarities that are important," Brewer said.

Supporters of casino gambling have predicted it will create as many as 15,000 jobs in Massachusetts, including 6,000 temporary construction jobs, and generate at least $300 million in new annual revenue for the state and its cities and towns. Backers also say Massachusetts residents who typically travel to casinos in neighboring Connecticut or other states would be more likely to stay in Massachusetts and go to casinos there.

An anti-casino group led by former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger blasted the job creation estimates as "wildly optimistic" and called the revenue projections outdated because they were based on pre-recession data.

A casino bill died in the final days of last year's legislative session after Gov. Deval Patrick objected to the inclusion of two slots parlors designated for Massachusetts racetracks. The key provisions of the current bill were negotiated largely behind closed doors by Patrick, Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Harshbarger said he expected the conference committee negotiations to be equally secretive.

"After weeks of so-called `debate,' the process now goes back behind closed doors where key differences in this bill will be hammered out the same way the bill was written - in secret, with no transparency or public voice," he said in a statement.