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Mass. casino bill goes to gov after final change

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / November 16, 2011

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BOSTON—Massachusetts was poised to open its doors to casinos after legislators Wednesday resolved a last-minute dispute over how much gambling revenue should go to help the state's horse racing industry.

The House and Senate gave final passage to the historic legislation after approving an amendment earlier in the day that reduced the percentage of casino taxes that would go to a Race Horse Development Fund from 5 percent to 2 1/2 percent. The other 2 1/2 percent would be redirected to cities and towns for capital projects.

Gov. Deval Patrick was expected to sign the bill within the next 10 days, ending years of discussion over whether to expand gambling in the state. Patrick first proposed the idea of bringing casinos to Massachusetts five years ago.

Lawmakers said the change was made after Patrick expressed concern to House Speaker Robert DeLeo about the formula that was contained in a compromise bill approved by the Legislature on Tuesday. It's unusual for bills to be changed at the enactment stage, a process that generally involves a pair of routine, uncontested votes.

Rep. Joseph Wagner, who was the House's lead negotiator on the casino bill, said he believed the amendment would satisfy all sides.

"We've got a bill that we think is a good bill and one that we think (Patrick) will be comfortable signing," Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, told reporters after the change was made.

Wagner defended the use of casino revenue to help the racing industry, and stressed that the money would not go directly to the state's two horse racing tracks but to horse breeders, farmers and other people associated with the industry.

Patrick, at a news conference on Tuesday, said he was surprised by the provision, but did not consider it a "show-stopper" -- meaning that he did not see it as a roadblock to the casino bill becoming law.

Wednesday's glitch added a final touch of drama to the lengthy debate over whether to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts. A bill also reached Patrick's desk a year ago, but he declined to sign it because it would have allowed for two slots parlors without a competitive bidding process.

The current bill, which authorizes up to three competitively bid casinos and one slots parlor, was formulated after months of closed-door talks between Patrick, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray.

The casino licenses would be allotted regionally, with one going to eastern Massachusetts, one to western Massachusetts and the third to the southeastern part of the state. A federally-recognized Indian tribe would be given preference for the license in southeastern Massachusetts, but only if the tribe can reach a compact with the state by July 31, 2012.

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

Even before final passage of the bill, casino operators were lining up to submit proposals to a gambling commission that will be created to review license applications.

On Wednesday, a Las Vegas company announced plans to buy land in Springfield with an eye toward building a luxury hotel and casino in the state's third-largest city.

Ameristar Casinos, Inc., said it had entered into a definitive agreement to purchase a 41-acre site near Interstate 291 for $16 million from the O'Connell Development Group, which had been planning a retail project at the site, once owned by Westinghouse but vacant in recent years.

"This is a great opportunity for Ameristar to build on a one-of-a-kind site within the city limits of Springfield, a city that would greatly benefit from an economic development project of this magnitude," said Gordon Kanofsky, Ameristar's chief executive, in a statement.

The company, which operates eight hotel hotels and casinos in the U.S., would be in competition with other casino proposals in western Massachusetts, including one recently unveiled by Hard Rock International for a 100-acre site off Interstate 91 in Holyoke. The owners of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut have proposed a gaming facility in the town of Palmer.

Supporters of expanded gaming in Massachusetts predict that it will create as many as 15,000 permanent and temporary jobs and generate at least $300 million in new annual revenue.

"This legislation alone is not going to be the solution to our ongoing economic recovery, but it will help put unemployed residents back to work in good jobs with good benefits," Murray said.

Opponents have questioned the accuracy of the job and revenue estimates and warned that casinos will bring increased crime, gambling addiction and other social ills.