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Casino gambling back on the table

SHIFT IN LEADERS, PRIORITIES Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland, has expressed support for slot parlors. SHIFT IN LEADERS, PRIORITIES
Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland, has expressed support for slot parlors.
By Matt Viser and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / April 16, 2009

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As lawmakers prepared a state budget yesterday with the deepest cuts in memory, Senate President Therese Murray offered a future remedy of her own.

"Ka-ching," Murray said, jerking her arm downward, as if she was pulling the lever on a slot machine.

With that simple motion, made in front of a hotel ballroom packed with Boston's business elite, Murray sent the most emphatic statement to date that casino gambling will be back on the legislative calendar this fall before state officials who are favorably inclined, to say the least.

"We need the revenue," Murray told members of Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in a question-and-answer session that followed a decidedly drier speech. "To see that over $900 million leaves the Commonwealth every year and goes to Connecticut and Rhode Island for gaming, I think that even if we could pick up $700 million of that, we would all take that."

Murray's sentiments were echoed around Beacon Hill yesterday by officials who said that the change in House leadership and the economic crisis battering state tax collections have pushed the Legislature closer than at any point in recent memory to expanding gambling.

"I think it's more [a question] of when than if, and in what form," said Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who proposed licensing up to three slot parlors around the state. "It seems as if the stars are aligning, especially with the change in leadership in the House."

But in the unity over the concept, there remains significant disagreement in the form that legalized gambling would take. Governor Deval Patrick has been an ardent supporter of resort-style casinos, and his previous proposal, defeated in the House last year, called for three licenses in different parts of the state.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland racetracks, has expressed strong backing for slot parlors, with the most likely venues being the state's existing dog and horse racing tracks. Cahill, who oversees the lottery, has supported auctioning three licenses for slot parlors. Murray has not detailed her preferences.

"The governor is comfortable with casinos and the speaker is comfortable with slots, so in order to get something done, I think we're going to have to compromise some and maybe do a little of both," said Representative Brian P. Wallace, who supports expanded gaming.

The departure of Salvatore F. DiMasi, the House speaker and gambling opponent who resigned in January, has brought many more supporters "out into the sunshine," added Wallace, a Democrat whose district straddles South Boston and Dorchester.

Patrick said in a brief interview that legislative leaders have shown interest "in having the conversation."

"I think it will come later in the year," he added.

DeLeo said he is open to discussing casinos, not just slots at tracks, or "racinos."

"It's obviously a very controversial subject matter," DeLeo said, in a meeting with Globe reporters and editors yesterday. "We have to try to get it as right as we can the very first time out of the box."

The speaker cautioned that gambling is not "the end-all" to the state's economic woes: "I look at it as one source of revenue that we can tap into as a Commonwealth," he said.

Amid the moves toward casino gambling, opponents said they hope the economic crisis does not make lawmakers grasp for the promise of casino revenue without considering related ills, such as gambling addiction, or associated costs. They also warned of other states that have seen reality fall short of projections, and pointed to Las Vegas, where gambling conglomerates are struggling financially.

"Whether we ultimately end up doing it or not doing it, it is a huge decision for Massachusetts, because it sets us on a course that no other state has been able to return from," said Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat and vocal gaming opponent. "Once you do it, it's done."

Richard Young, the president of Casino Free Mass, warned of hidden costs to gambling and said casinos could "become our next Big Dig." Laura Everett, the group's vice president, cautioned about the "predatory" nature of modern slot machines and said Murray's arm gesture was misguided.

By delaying any floor debate until fall, which all parties detailed as the scenario, it means that the Legislature can pass the controversial 2010 budget, which starts July 1, without entangling it in the casino question.

Even with swift approval, casinos or slots would be unlikely to generate revenue for the upcoming budget, given the time needed for lawmakers and officials to establish regulatory oversight and for operators to build their gaming facilities.

Murray has asked two lawmakers - Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat, and Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat - to lead negotiations from the Senate.

Morrissey has been a vocal advocate for expanded gambling but described himself as a casino "realist," not an enthusiast.

"I'm of the wagon-train theory. The wagons have already circled, and we're the ones they have circled," Morrissey said. "If you can't beat them, you want to join them - but you want to join them in a way that makes some sense, creates some jobs, generates revenue, and protects the people of the Commonwealth."

DeLeo said the House is already studying the issue. Representative Brian S. Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat and the House chairman on the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, has been reviewing reports and meeting with proponents and opponents.

"I have an open mind," said Dempsey.