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State antes up on casino talks

Opponents bash plan as insider deal

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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More than 100 Massachusetts House Democrats met privately to hash out the last-minute details of a casino gambling bill yesterday, while opponents stood outside the State House, pointing to the closed talks as evidence that it was an inside deal.

“I have a title for the bill,’’ said Susan Tucker, a recently retired state senator who is leading antigambling crusader. “It’s called the fleecing of the Massachusetts taxpayers.’’

Tucker said the legislation takes from the poor and returns profits to out-of-state billionaires. She warned former colleagues that voters who say they support gambling will become opponents if a casino locates near their homes. “It can be a career-ending vote,’’ she said. “It’s easier to site a landfill than it is a casino.’’

The press conference attracted dozens of critics and was one of the largest antigambling demonstrations since the casino bill was unveiled last month.

Those opponents said that any promised economic benefit to the state from casinos would be outweighed by the costs of increased crime and addiction and that the state’s historic character would be transformed.

“People come from around the world to visit our great Commonwealth,’’ said the Rev. Laura Everett, associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. “They don’t come to sit in a windowless slot barn with no clocks and oxygen pumped in that could be anywhere in the world.’’

Starting today, the House is scheduled to debate the bill that would authorize three casinos and one slot machine parlor. That debate could continue into tomorrow before a vote is taken. The Senate is expected to take up the bill at the end of the month.

It has the support of legislative leaders and Governor Deval Patrick, who say it would create jobs and help bolster the state’s budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in casino taxes. A similar bill passed both the House and Senate last year, but never became law because of disagreement between the governor and House leaders over the number and type of gambling facilities.

The debate kicked off yesterday with the closed-door meeting of House Democrats, who hold a large majority in that chamber, as well as in the Senate.

Following that caucus, Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he has spoken with unemployed workers at union halls and believes that casinos will help get them back to work. “They want jobs,’’ he said. “People are really hurting out there, folks.’’

Yesterday’s caucus included discussions on a host of gambling-related issues, including 154 amendments proposed last week, according to DeLeo and others in attendance.

Representative Daniel B. Winslow, a Norfolk Republican, proposed a measure that would make Massachusetts the first state to legalize Internet gambling, in hope that companies would base their operations here. Representative Thomas P. Conroy, a casino opponent and Wayland Democrat running for US Senate, proposed a measure that would encourage higher wages and benefits for casino workers, including on-site daycare. Democrat Cory Atkins of Concord submitted an amendment that would require casino operators to monitor parking lots for children left in parked cars, a problem that has occurred at casinos elsewhere in the country.

DeLeo said a provision in the bill that gives the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe an advantage in negotiating for the right to open a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts drew the most questions in yesterday’s caucus.

Legislators said they also discussed numerous amendments that would affect payments given to communities near casinos to help offset added traffic, crime, and other consequences.

Critics say the negative impact on quality of life will be too significant for money set aside in the bill to repair. “East Boston, Revere, and Winthrop, you have a target on your back,’’ said John Ribeiro, founder of Neighbors of Suffolk Downs. “This is just another back-room deal that represents the special interests and not the people’s interest.’’

The casino bill was drafted following closed negotiations among DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, and Patrick, all Democrats who support expanded gambling. DeLeo defended that process yesterday, saying voters have had the opportunity to express their opinions during years of debate and through their state representatives.

But opponents said many lawmakers’ arms have been twisted, pointing out that support for gambling in the House increased dramatically when DeLeo replaced Salvatore F. DiMasi, a gambling opponent, as speaker.

DeLeo suggested yesterday that many lawmakers changed their positions on their own.

“I disagree with that very strongly,’’ he said. “I think we’ve made the case over the years. Maybe I didn’t have to convince as many people as people would like to think in terms of changing their votes.’’

House majority leader Ronald Mariano said he had no idea how many House members would ultimately vote in favor of the casino bill. “If I could predict that I’d be making money somewhere else,’’ he said.

At a casino? “I wouldn’t do that,’’ he said. “I know the odds.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.