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Senate amends gambling bill to ban smoking throughout casinos

Measure may face a final vote today

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 25, 2010

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You may be able to gamble away your fortune, but it won’t go up in smoke.

That was the message yesterday from the state Senate, which voted, 24 to 15, in favor of an amendment to expanded gambling legislation that would ban smoking in casinos. The vote was a rare rebuke for Senate leaders, who wanted to allow smoking in one-fourth of the floor space at the casinos.

The smoking ban was one of only a few significant changes Happroved yesterday to a bill that would license three casinos in three regions of the state. Over several hours of impassioned Hdebate, casino supporters succeeded in fending off amendment after amendment, rolling up wide margins that suggested casinos are well on their way to Senate approval.

Debate on casinos continued into the night. The bill, which could reach a final vote today, would need to be reconciled with the House version, which licenses two casinos as well as slot machines at the state’s two horse and two former dog tracks.

One of the few major amendments approved in the Senate yesterday, on a 24-15 vote, would make it easier for Suffolk Downs to build a casino in East Boston and for casino developers to locate in other large cities. The amendment, which was sponsored by Anthony W. Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, says casinos that want to locate in a city of 125,000 or more residents need only receive approval, on a referendum, from voters in the ward in which the casino will be located, rather than from voters in the entire city. That means voters in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan, and other Boston neighborhoods would not be able to stop a casino in East Boston if the neighborhood wants one.

Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, and Marian Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat, strongly opposed the amendment, saying it would rob their constituents of a voice, even though they, too, would be affected by a casino in East Boston. But Petruccelli argued that East Boston is so geographically isolated from the rest of the city that a casino in the neighborhood will not dramatically affect other neighborhoods.

Suffolk Downs supported the amendment, as did Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who backs Suffolk’s bid to build a casino in East Boston. He said in a statement that the amendment “allows the people directly impacted to have the most say in what happens in their neighborhood.’’

On the smoking amendment, Senate leaders warned that, without smoking, casinos in Massachusetts would lose as much as $94 million in revenue to Connecticut’s casinos, which allow smoking.

“Only in Massachusetts would we have a casino bill and try to build a politically correct casino,’’ said Richard R. Tisei, the Senate Republican leader and candidate for lieutenant governor, urging his colleagues to reject the amendment. “Have any of you people ever been to a casino, and [do you] understand what it takes for a casino to be successful and to draw people in?’’

But supporters of the amendment said second-hand smoke would put casino workers’ lives at risk. They pointed out that Massachusetts banned smoking in most workplaces six years ago and that a Harvard School of Public Health study has shown the ban saves 600 lives a year.

“I thought we were trying to create jobs here,’’ said Susan C. Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat who urged her colleagues to approve the amendment. “Why create jobs for people who will sicken and die? This is the most hypocritical thing I’ve seen in my 14 years in the Senate.’’

But most amendments were handily rejected yesterday. Senators, for example, voted, 13 to 26, against an amendment brought by casino critics that would have required the Patrick administration to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of casino gambling and not issue any casino licenses until the study was completed in July 2011.

Supporters said the amendment would give the state a fuller picture of the downside of casinos, rather than just the economic benefits highlighted in a recent Senate-commissioned study. But opponents of the amendment said the measure was merely an attempt to delay the licensing of casinos for a year.

Senators also rejected, on a 9-30 vote, an amendment that would have required abutting communities and communities within 15 miles of a casino to approve them in a referendum.

Supporters of the amendment argued that surrounding communities, which will provide basic services for a nearby casino, deserve a voice in the approval process.

Opponents said requiring referenda in so many communities would make it impossible to approve a casino anywhere in Massachusetts.

An attempt to raise the tax on casinos from 25 percent to 30 percent also failed. Backers said the higher tax would bring in as much as $100 million annually to shore up state services.

But Senate leaders, reiterating an argument they used throughout the debate, argued that a higher tax would put the state’s casinos at a competitive disadvantage.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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