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Gambling bill raises hopes for casinos

By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / August 23, 2011

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House and Senate leaders plan today to unveil a much-anticipated bill to license casinos in Massachusetts, bringing forward a new proposal that they hope will address some of the concerns raised by Governor Deval Patrick.

Lawmakers would not discuss the details of the bill yesterday. However, their talks have revolved around plans that would license three Las Vegas-style casinos in three regions of the state and one slot machine-only parlor that could be located anywhere in the state.

That would represent a concession by House and Senate leaders, who last year failed to persuade the governor to agree to three casinos and two slot parlors at the state’s racetracks.

Patrick has long said that he opposes automatically giving slot licenses to racetracks, arguing that those licenses should be limited in number and be competitively bid. He recently said he would agree to one such slot license as part of a compromise with legislators to license three casinos. He had made a similar proposal last year.

House and Senate lawmakers have drafted the bill in consultation with the governor’s staff, hoping to avoid a bitter public showdown like the one that scuttled the bill last year. Any plan they develop will need Patrick’s signature to become law.

“The parties have been talking, and there has been a lot of discussion on all sides,’’ said Senator Karen E. Spilka, cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, which will be releasing the bill today. “The hope is we have something that we have consensus on.’’

Senator Stephen M. Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said today’s action means that Beacon Hill’s three big power brokers - Patrick, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray - are closer than ever to legalizing casinos.

“This is a bill that’s been developed between the president, the speaker and the governor, and that is not any secret,’’ he said. “The moon and the stars and the sun have simultaneously become aligned . . . more so than ever before.’’

Today’s unveiling is a crucial step before the full House and Senate debate the bill after Labor Day. It will give members of the public their first glimpse at legislation that has been closely guarded behind closed doors, with even some lawmakers on the committee unsure what was being drafted in private.

Although the governor, DeLeo, and Murray all say they want to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts, there are many delicate issues that could still prove nettlesome.

All three parties will have to decide who controls the agency that oversees the casinos, how the proceeds from those casinos will be distributed, and what preference, if any, to give Indian tribes. Even seemingly minor details can prove explosive with a handful of moneyed interests vying to gain billions of dollars in revenue.

Beacon Hill leaders have for years said they want to keep gamblers from traveling to neighboring states. That desire has only increased during the economic downturn, with lawmakers promising that they will use the revenue from gambling to help cities and towns preserve jobs for teachers, police officers, and other local employees.

Critics, who have been largely sidelined during the closed-door negotiations this summer, have said that casinos will bring more social ills than economic gains and harm small businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy.

Unlike in his first term, when Patrick made a determined push for casinos, the governor has allowed lawmakers to take the lead this time. He has indicated that he wants to move the issue along quickly this fall, so lawmakers can move on to other time-consuming priorities, including a complex plan to control the cost of health care.

DeLeo, Beacon Hill’s most ardent gambling proponent who battled Patrick over the slots issue last year, has struck a more conciliatory tone this year, saying his priority is to reach consensus with the governor and others. Many in the Legislature, frustrated by decades of fruitless debate, are also hopeful that casinos will be legalized next month.

“I’m pleased we’re moving forward with the gaming legislation,’’ said Representative Stephen L. DiNatale, a gambling supporter and member of the Economic Development Committee from Fitchburg.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.