Massachusetts voters would get a chance to voice their opinion on Governor Deval Patrick's casino plan as soon as Feb. 5, the date proposed for the state's presidential primary, under an amendment pushed by two lawmakers who support the licensing of casinos.
Senator Michael W. Morrissey of Quincy and Representative Brian P. Wallace of South Boston, both Democrats, will seek to amend a bill scheduled for debate in the state Senate today and in the House next week that would change the state's presidential primary from March 4 to Feb. 5.
The amendment calls for a nonbinding referendum that would ask primary voters: "Do you support the establishment of up to three resort casinos in Massachusetts?"
"More than a million people would be coming out to vote," said Morrissey. "It would be a good time to test the waters and get feedback that would be very beneficial to both proponents and opponents. It would send a message that we're sincere about giving the gov ernor's plan a chance."
The move puts the spotlight in the casino debate on House and Senate leaders, who will now have to decide whether to allow members of their respective chambers to consider the plan. Senate President Therese Murray, a casino supporter, said yesterday that she will allow the debate and is "looking forward to a spirited discussion" on the proposal.
But House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi is not tipping his hand. His spokesman, David Guarino, would not say whether the speaker, a longtime gambling foe, will allow the amendment to come to the floor.
Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies and the Legislature's leading gambling opponent, said the speaker could rule the amendment out of order on the grounds that it is not germane to the original presidential primary bill.
House rules bar members from offering amendments that deal with matters not contained in the original bill. "We're very strict and conservative in our rules," said House clerk Steven James.
A legislative vote on the ballot amendment could offer the first indication of how the governor's casino plan might fare if it comes up for a vote in the Legislature next year. Wallace said he thinks that, if given the chance to vote, a majority of House members would support the amendment. Historically, the House has opposed any expansion of gambling.
"There's a change in the House, definitely a change," he said. "I'm getting an overwhelming number of people saying it's about time."
In a challenge to DiMasi, Wallace added: "We've been told the House is open, so let's debate it. And let the people vote on it. No tricks. Do you want casinos or not? Let the people decide. It shouldn't be one or two people deciding what the state wants."
But Bosley said a nonbinding referendum would not help lawmakers decide whether to approve casinos for Massachusetts.
"I think the Legislature wants to know whether these things are really the economic boon the governor says they are," Bosley said. "We're not going to settle that in a nonbinding referendum question."
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who proposed moving up the presidential primary, said changing the date to Feb. 5 would give Massachusetts voters more of a say in presidential politics. Feb. 5 has almost become a national primary day, said Galvin, with as many as 21 primaries that day.
He said that if the casino amendments prolong debate on the primary bill, the Legislature could miss the deadline for passing the measure, Nov. 21.
"We're in the final days of the legislative session," Galvin said. "The name of the game is beat the clock. After next Tuesday, there will be no formal session.
"I understand he [Morrissey] has a concern about taking the popular opinion on casinos, but I don't want to see it become a cause for delay," Galvin said.
Earlier this month, voters in three communities - Pittsfield, Worcester, and Chicopee - passed nonbinding ballot questions supporting casinos. Patrick's bill requires any proposal to have the support of the local community.
The governor says three resort casinos would generate 20,000 permanent jobs and $400 million in annual tax revenue.
His spokesman declined to comment on the referendum amendment.