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Globe Editorial

Casino bill is deeply flawed; rank and file should kill it

Slot machines at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem in Bethlehem, Pa. Slot machines at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem in Bethlehem, Pa. (Bloomberg News)
September 8, 2011

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AFTER YEARS of false starts, legislative leaders and Governor Patrick hammered out a new agreement behind closed doors last month to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts. It’s a deeply disappointing bill, full of just the kind of inside deals and special-interest giveaways that Patrick once vowed to fight. Now it’s up to rank-and-file lawmakers to reject the plan.

The proposal concocted by Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo would license three resort-style casinos in different regions of the state, along with a single slots parlor. The Commonwealth would pocket 25 percent of the revenues from the casinos, and 40 percent of revenues from slots.

Under the right circumstances, carefully regulated casino gambling should have a place in Massachusetts, providing jobs and stemming the outflow of revenue to casinos in neighboring states. But this proposal falls far short of meeting that standard.

The proposal’s greatest flaw is the inclusion of the slots parlor, which has long been a sticking point in negotiations. Slots would be lucrative for the state, but they create relatively few jobs and are one of the most addictive forms of gambling - which is why Patrick was right to oppose including slots in earlier gambling plans, and why he is wrong to give in now.

The bill also directs 9 percent of revenues from the slots parlor to subsidize purses at horse tracks, satisfying one of DeLeo’s demands. The speaker has been an unusually strong advocate for Suffolk Downs. It’s understandable that he would want to help an ailing business in his district, but such a set-aside is unwarranted.

The horse-racing subsidy is not the only way the bill seems rigged to help Suffolk Downs, which spent $191,000 lobbying in the first six months of this year and hopes to host one of the three casinos. The track would be relieved of part of the approval process that applies elsewhere in the state. At the insistence of the governor and others, the bill gives towns where casinos want to operate the right to hold a referendum. But the legislation exempts communities with a population over 125,000; in those cities, only the ward where the casino is to be located will be allowed to vote. Only Boston, Worcester, and Springfield fit that definition. The effect of the provision would be to prevent the city from voting on gambling at Suffolk Downs. Boston residents need to make clear to their representatives that a vote for the casino bill is a vote against their own constituents. And Patrick needs to explain why his past support for giving residents a say apparently doesn’t extend to most people in Boston.

Any casino legislation should also provide a level playing field for would-be operators. Instead, under the current proposal, Native American tribes would have a one-year head start for the license designated for Southeastern Massachusetts. It effectively amounts to a no-bid contract for the Mashpee Wampanoag, the only tribe likely to complete a proposal in that timeframe. Given the longstanding desire of the tribe to build a casino on its ancestral lands, the provision holds understandable appeal; better that some of the benefits from a casino go to a tribe with a long history in Massachusetts rather than out-of-state gambling operators. But carving out a special process for a group with strong lobbying muscle remains problematic. Patrick opposed no-bid contracts in negotiations last year - and shouldn’t have shifted now.

If Massachusetts is going to embrace an industry with a history of sparking public corruption and attracting organized crime, the state’s legal framework must be above reproach. It’s widely assumed that the Legislature will bow to the leadership and support the deal. But lawmakers need to stand up for the greater good.