The House today approved by a veto-proof margin legislation to establish two casinos in Massachusetts and up to 750 slot machines at each of the stateís four racetracks, embracing the largest expansion of gambling since the creation of the Lottery in 1971.
The lopsided vote, 120 to 37, was due in large part to a relentless campaign for slots and casinos by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, the son of a track worker whose district includes two racetracks. DeLeo succeeded in persuading many members who voted against casinos in 2008 to switch their votes.
Indeed, two years ago, House lawmakers overwhelmingly followed the lead of the previous speaker, Salvatore F. DiMasi, a staunch gambling opponent, when they voted, 108 to 46, to kill Governor Deval Patrickís bill to license three casinos.
Lawmakers who changed their votes said the slumping economy had persuaded them that casinos and slots represent a historic opportunity to create thousands of jobs and capture much of the estimated $1.1 billion that Massachusetts gamblers spend annual at casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Several also acknowledged that the speakerís power to strip legislators of their chairmanships and influence pushed them to back one of his top priorities.
"This is the bill he has cared about more than any other bill," said Representative Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat and member of the speakerís leadership team who voted for the bill after voting against casinos in 2008. "My sense is that there may well be consequences for people voting against this bill -- particularly people in his inner circle."
The bill now heads to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. Both Senate President Therese Murray and Governor Deval Patrick support casinos but not slots at the tracks, which they argue will not create many new jobs.
Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who is Murrayís point person on casinos, said it was too soon to predict the shape of the gambling legislation Senate leaders will craft but said unions, casino lobbyists, and gamblers will be pushing them to act. Senators plan to begin their deliberations with a series of closed-door meetings later this month.
"The debate is now fully engaged as the House completes their action," Rosenberg said. "There will be a lot of pressure to move on the issue."
Proponents hailed the bill as a much-needed boost for the economy. Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, a Revere Democrat and longtime proponent of expanded gambling whose district includes two racetracks, recalled working at one of them, Wonderland Greyhound Park.
"These facilities and these businesses were never considered albatrosses," she said. "They brought promise and opportunity."
Critics warned of catastrophic consequences from the social ills associated with compulsive gambling. They warned that increases in domestic violence, foreclosures, suicides and other problems would offset the predicted economic benefit of two casinos and 3,000 slots machines.
Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr., a Somerville Democrat, spoke of relatives who faced economic ruin and marital strife because of their addiction to gambling. He denounced the House for giving its "blessing to an industry whose sole mission is to strip people of their hard-earned money for nothing more than corporate profit and corporate greed."
"Itís not economic development," he said. "Itís exploitation."
Representative Matthew C. Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat opposed to the bill, choked up as he recalled how his father, a World War II veteran and high school football coach, became addicted to betting on horses, forcing his mother to raise the family.
"Poverty is no fun," Patrick said. "Using food stamps, getting hand-me-downs, phones turned off all the timeÖ I want you to realize this has a real dramatic impact on families. Itís going to hurt families."
Opponents also predicted that casinos would destroy local businesses. Gamblers will flock to the betting parlors, but "theyíre spending money that in the long run would be spent elsewhere," said Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat and longtime opponent of expanded gambling.
Casinos may be a form of entertainment, but they are the "worst form of investment you can make as economic policy," Bosley said.
Opponents are hoping the differences among Murray, DeLeo, and Patrick over slot machines could ultimately doom the bill. Some lawmakers and casino lobbyists predicted the issue will ultimately be resolved in a conference committee of House and Senate leaders this summer.
On the beat
Columnist Adrian Walker says UMass Dartmouth is shaken after revelations that one of the Marathon bomb suspects was a student there. Read more