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Would-be hosts, foes rev up for casino bid

Bitter fight promised as Patrick plan awaited

Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Revere's Wonderland Park immediately began jockeying for one of the three Massachusetts casino licenses that Governor Deval Patrick is expected to propose as soon as today, while gambling foes just as quickly began mobilizing and vowed a major fight against casinos, portraying it as a struggle for the state's soul.

Patrick's plan for three licenses was reported in the Globe yesterday. The governor is expected to propose licenses in three regions - Southeastern Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, and an area that includes Boston and points north. All three licenses would be put up for competitive bid, a process that is expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state from each casino.

Even in advance of Patrick's official announcement, would-be casino hosts began extolling the virtues of their site. Representatives of cities and towns, meanwhile, worried what would happen to their share of state lottery proceeds if casinos dominate the gambling market. And leaders on Beacon Hill began sharpening their arguments in what promises to be a historic debate.

The discussion is expected to be most vociferous in the House, where Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has been outspoken against an expansion of gambling. The Legislature must approve Patrick's plan for it to move forward.

Supporters of Patrick's initiative say that the infusion of new money to the state from casinos - anticipated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars at each facility - would put Massachusetts on better financial footing to improve bridges and roads, fund education programs, and provide property tax relief to cities and towns. It would also add thousands of jobs in depressed areas of the state, backers say.

But critics say the benefits are overstated, considering the amount of money that would need to be directed toward infrastructure improvements, additional public safety officials, and programs to fight the social ills of compulsive gambling.

"This is a tragedy and a social injustice," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which plans to join in opposition along with several other powerful groups, including the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the League of Women Voters. "What this state represents in historic and cultural terms will be forever changed with the glitter and ballyhoo of Vegas. This is not going to go by easily, believe me. This is about the soul of the Commonwealth."

Investment teams yesterday began organizing with the hope of securing one of the three licenses, which are expected to go for hundreds of millions of dollars.

A spokesperson for Wonderland Greyhound Park, citing the racetrack's oceanfront property, said owners plan to bid for the right to locate a destination casino there, and would probably compete with Suffolk Downs, a horse-racing track 2 miles away where owners and Mayor Thomas M. Menino foresee a casino, hotels, shops, and Vegas-style shows.

"If the governor moves ahead with a proposal for casino gaming, we think Suffolk Downs is an ideal location," said Bill Mulrow, chairman of the racetrack's board of directors. "Our proximity to Logan Airport and downtown Boston gives us the ability to enhance tourism in the region."

The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe is planning a large-scale casino resort in Middleborough. But Patrick's expected support for a casino anywhere in Southeastern Massachusetts - which would include New Bedford, just 20 miles south - could complicate the tribe's plans. The tribe can bid for one of the licenses for its Middleborough site, and if it loses it could proceed with a federal approval process created for Indian casinos. That would take several years, but might result in a fourth Massachusetts casino.

The tribe said it wasn't ready to announce that it would pursue a license. "This stuff will sort itself out," said Scott Ferson, a tribe spokesman. "The important thing for the tribe is that the governor is behind gaming in Massachusetts."

A major worry among cities and towns yesterday was over how the casinos would affect the Massachusetts State Lottery, which is a major source of revenue for municipal budgets and this year will generate about $920 million to be spread among local coffers.

"If casinos hurt the lottery, it works cross-purposes," said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. "Filling that gap and plugging that loss needs to be a major component of any casino plan."

A State House official briefed on the plans said Patrick is expected to guarantee that cities and towns will continue to get at least as much money as they get now through the lottery, but the official would not provide details. It is also unclear whether the casinos would come under the jurisdiction of the Lottery Commission, or whether a new body would be created to regulate them.

The expected plan to put casino licenses out to the highest bidders reflects a proposal that was floated by Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill in May. Cahill applauded developments yesterday.

"It makes sense to have the state take advantage of this economic opportunity, before tribal or other competitors," he said.

Senate President Therese Murray, who has supported an expansion of gambling in the state, declined to comment yesterday.

DiMasi, who is publicly opposed to casinos and whose influence in the House will play a key role, declined to comment yesterday through his spokesman, who said the speaker wanted to wait to see the plan. The spokesman, David Guarino, told the Globe last week that DiMasi was keeping an open mind to any arguments Patrick makes for casinos. But one of DiMasi's allies, Representative Daniel E. Bosley, Democrat of North Adams, said he will argue strongly that the notion that casinos bring economic development does not hold up.

"Is this good economic policy - and not for Middleborough, Palmer, or New Bedford, but for the state as a whole?" said Bosley. " . . . This is not good for economic development."

But others insist that the state has run out of ways to find new sources of revenue as Patrick tries to undertake a $1 billion life science initiative and a $1.5 billion capital spending plan, among other economic developments.

"This is the last true revenue source, absent taxes," said Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Democrat from Quincy. "We've done some creative things, but this is really the last frontier of revenues."

The Beacon Hill debate could hinge on representatives such as James R. Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat who said he has voted against slot machine proposals in the past but has noticed a shift in the electorate.

"I could vote for this," Miceli said. "In the district in which I live, I put out a questionnaire at town meetings every year, and they're more in favor than opposed. If you go to the senior centers, they're overwhelmingly in favor, because they take bus trips to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun every week. It has a constituency here."

A poll conducted last year by the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth indicated that 56.5 percent of the 1,041 Massachusetts residents surveyed supported the idea of resort casinos in the Bay State.

Globe correspondent Christine Wallgren contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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