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Bill would force Beacon Hill to take notice of gambling’s impact

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 7, 2011

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One of the state Legislature’s most powerful lawmakers has filed a bill that could stymie efforts to expand casino gambling in the state, adding a new twist to an evolving political issue that continues to seize attention on Beacon Hill.

Senator Steven M. Brewer, a Democrat from Barre, filed a proposal that requires an independent cost-benefit analysis of expanded gambling before any casinos or slot parlors could be approved. And if the analysis shows financial costs to surrounding communities and businesses outweigh the benefits, the measure would require a two-thirds vote from lawmakers to approve new gambling facilities.

Lawmakers file thousands of bills each session. But Brewer’s is significant because he was recently named chairman of the Ways and Means committee, the Senate’s second-most powerful post.

His predecessor, Steven C. Panagiotakos, led the gambling debate in the Senate last year, including an effort to allow cigarette smoking in casino halls to ensure facilities could maximize their profits. Brewer, by contrast, voted against the final casino measure, though he repeated yesterday that he is not morally opposed to gambling and would support a bill if it included appropriate protections for surrounding communities.

Still, he concedes he is “not quite a champion’’ of casino gambling. “I think the intention of the Senate is, if it is going to be done, it should be done right.’’ Last year, the legislative session ended in virtual deadlock over gambling, despite support for casinos from Governor Deval Patrick, the House, and the Senate. But Patrick wanted resort-style casinos and opposed allowing slot parlors at the state’s race tracks and former race tracks, whereas House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said slot parlors were needed to save jobs and bring in money to the state more quickly.

Prospects for renewing debate this year have been hard to gauge. Patrick said he was wary of draining attention from other issues. DeLeo has been the most aggressive, tweaking Patrick in public last week as he urged swift action. Senate President Therese Murray has been the least vocal on the issue, adding weight to Brewer’s proposal.

Murray’s spokesman could not be reached yesterday, and DeLeo’s spokesman said he had not yet read Brewer’s bill so could not comment on its potential impact.

One casino lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday because he did not want to alienate lawmakers, said he believed Brewer’s bill is a sign that Murray wants to proceed less aggressively than DeLeo.

“Slots at the tracks is an increasingly higher bar,’’ the lobbyist said.

Brewer said he filed the bill several weeks ago, before he was named to his top committee post by Murray. He said he sponsored the measure, which attracted about 20 cosponsors in the House and Senate last week, as a courtesy to gambling oppnents in his district, and believes some of their concerns may actually be addressed in separate bills filed by progambling legislators.

“There isn’t any grand conspiracy here’’ to derail expanded gambling efforts, Brewer said.

Still, antigambling activists are encouraged by the help from Brewer.

Kathleen Conley Norbut, a constituent of Brewer’s and a senior adviser for United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, had been lobbying Brewer to file the bill.

“I think we finally have gotten to a sane starting point for this discussion that is not driven by the proponents, who have a conflict of interest and financial investment,’’ she said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.