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Climate shifts in state gambling debate

Arguments familiar but dynamics differ

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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As state lawmakers open hearings on casino gambling today, the debate will be familiar in many respects, pitting promises of financial windfalls against warnings of social costs. But several political and economic dynamics have shifted since negotiations over the issue broke down nine months ago.

Casino proponents may enjoy a more hospitable climate this time around. Governor Deval Patrick may be more open to legalization of gambling, because he is no longer facing a reelection campaign in which he must appeal to core supporters who adamantly oppose it. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, the most ardent casino supporter at the State House, has struck a more conciliatory tone after last year’s showdown with Patrick. And many lawmakers, who angered unions with votes to curtail collective bargaining, may support gambling as a way to reclaim support from labor leaders who believe that allowing casinos will bring construction jobs.

On top of that, unemployment, though easing, remains high, and social programs in the state budget are being gutted because of a loss of federal stimu lus money, making gambling revenue more attractive.

Tax collections, on the other hand, have been rebounding more strongly than expected, with an announcement yesterday that they are $587 million above what state officials estimated they would collect in April. That has eased pressure on lawmakers to find a new source of cash to fortify the state budget.

And there may also be gambling fatigue after so many years of the debate, as well as concern that it could once again eclipse other pressing issues.

Against that backdrop, advocates on both sides will attempt to reargue the merits.

The real negotiations will take place once again behind the scenes, among Patrick, DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray, all of whom say they want casinos, but have never been able to agree on the details.

Patrick and DeLeo said this week that they remain in the preliminary stages of their discussion. DeLeo wants to give racetracks and former tracks the ability to open slot machine parlors, in addition to granting full-scale casino licenses.

Patrick has generally opposed giving slot parlor licenses to the tracks and has shown some indifference to the issue since his initial 2007 casino proposal was defeated. He does, however, say he still supports full-scale resort style casinos.

“This is not the central focus of the governor or of our job strategy,’’ Patrick’s spokesman, Brendan Ryan, said yesterday. “I can count on one hand the number of times we have had any real conversations about casinos.’’

DeLeo, the son of a track worker, is the most passionate about the issue and has said repeatedly that he would like to move quickly to preserve jobs in the fading dog and horse racing industry, while devoting the high taxes on slot machines to strapped city and town budgets.

“Let’s have the hearing,’’ DeLeo said yesterday. “Let’s see what the testimony says. And, at that point, I think we’ll be in a better position for all of us to have further discussions.’’

Murray, the hardest to pin down, has shown some flexibility, compromising with DeLeo last year on a bill that allowed both resort casinos and slot parlors. But she did not coax her members to override Patrick when he rejected that compromise and has since said that, like the governor, she worries about allowing gambling to take attention from other priorities.

Gambling industry representatives were crestfallen last year after coming closer than ever to an agreement, only to see it fall apart. But they have not given up. Already this year, 27 gambling lobbyists have registered, a slight drop from last year’s 35.

Executives in the industry, which spent $4.6 million on lobbying over the last two years, are expected to testify at today’s hearing, attempting to wow lawmakers with promises of large investments, thousands of jobs, and millions in state revenue.

Wynn Resorts, which owns major casinos in Las Vegas and Macau, said it plans to announce a proposal at the hearing to invest $1 billion to $1.5 billion if it wins the right to open a casino.

“We’re interested,’’ said Kim Sinatra, senior vice president and general counsel for Wynn. She said she is not related to Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra said Massachusetts is near the top of potential US destinations, because of its market size and political conditions. and that the company would propose building a facility with entertainment, a hotel, convention space, and other amenities. The project would require hiring 10,000 construction workers and 8,000 permanent employees, she said, generating about $1 billion a year in revenue.

Sinatra said her company does not want to push the state into legalizing casinos, but wants lawmakers to know that “A players’’ remain interested in the market.

Opponents point out that such proposals — and there have been many — are far from ironclad and say that casinos cannibalize local businesses and create new public costs by multiplying social ills. Opponents are proposing a bill that would require an independent analysis before casinos can be legalized, saying the state cannot trust the numbers from gambling industry sources or groups that take money from gambling proponents.

“Massachusetts is slowly coming out of the bad economy,’’ said Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “Why would we want to pass something that’s going to hurt a lot of these small businesses?’’

But several proponents say they believe that this is the year Beacon Hill will approve casinos.

“Last year, we felt that the stars had aligned, the first time in two decades, where we had each of the three powers in the Massachusetts political landscape all in favor of expanded gaming,’’ said Gary Piontkowski, president of Plainridge Harness track in Plainville.

“We begin much further along’’ this year, said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and a gambling supporter who will be chairman of today’s hearing, along with Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat.

Yet even casino advocates have had difficulty coming to agreement, with numerous local and national developers pushing lawmakers to give their company a leg up in the bidding process, for licenses that could be worth billions of dollars in future revenue.

As the gambling industry waits for the big payoff, lower-level gambling operators have been fighting over crumbs, seeking loopholes in state laws that allow charitable poker games or online poker parlors.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is expected to testify at today’s hearing, has cracked down on both activities in recent weeks.

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