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Casino arrival could be years off

Report sees long wait for touted construction jobs

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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Despite the swift pace of legislation to legalize casino gambling in Massachusetts, it could take at least five years after a bill is signed to approve, build, and open a full-scale casino here.

A 2008 report that state leaders have championed, estimates that if casino gambling is approved, it will take several years before shovels hit the ground. Construction jobs being touted by lawmakers would not materialize for at least two years, and large-scale construction would not start for three years, the report says.

A slots parlor could be built in less time, although, as a smaller facility, it would provide significantly fewer jobs.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo estimated after the House vote Wednesday night that the first slots parlor could open within a year, with casinos to follow two or more years after that.

But the report, commissioned for the state by Spectrum Gaming Group lays out a multilayered process that includes appointing and staffing a gambling commission that will select developers and oversee casinos, designing a bidding process to award licenses, and drafting a host of regulations.

As lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the casino debate were beginning to digest Wednesday night’s vote, Senate President Therese Murray offered further support for the bill that would authorize three full-scale casinos and one slots parlor.

She vowed to begin the debate in the Senate on Sept. 26.

“This is a jobs bill,’’ Murray said in a brief interview with reporters. “People have to work. This isn’t a moral issue for me.’’

Though lawmakers will continue to haggle over details, most Beacon Hill observers believe that the Senate will ultimately approve the bill. A similar measure passed last year, and Murray’s backing should boost its prospects.

Governor Deval Patrick said in a brief interview that he is still reading the fine print. “We haven’t scrubbed it,’’ he said.

But he likes what he sees so far. “I think it’s moving in the right direction,’’ he said. “It has all, or most, of the central components that I’m looking for in a good bill, and we’ll see what comes out of the Senate.’’

Several provisions that passed in a flurry of action Wednesday night will certainly face scrutiny in the Senate. One amendment, for example, would give the forthcoming gambling commission the ultimate authority to decide how much money local communities would get in mitigation expenses from casinos in the event that a city and a developer cannot reach an agreement on their own.

The potential effects of casinos on local communities has been a central issue for lawmakers, who must answer to constituents.

Another amendment that passed late Wednesday would direct the gambling commission to draft a bill allowing Internet gambling. That bill would still require further approval from the Legislature before any additional form of gambling would be approved in the state.

But the amendment’s sponsor - Representative Daniel B. Winslow, a Norfolk Republican - has been promoting Internet gambling as yet another source of jobs.

Along with the casino industry, organized labor has been lobbying especially hard for gambling, in hope of adding jobs in construction and the service industry.

“People are generally understanding that this bill is a compromise bill that should pass,’’ said Tim Sullivan, spokesman for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Senators who oppose gambling say they plan to argue that the market for casinos has contracted in the past two years, making it a bad deal for the state.

“I acknowledge it’s an uphill battle,’’ said James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “We’re going to continue to put up a fight on the issue and raise all our concerns.’’

One of the state’s leading opponents, former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, said there is still time to win over the public. He said the bill has so many giveaways for inside players that the public will demand restraint if they learn the bill’s true impact.

“There’s plenty of opportunity for cooler heads to prevail here,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of stacked decks here in terms of who’s going to get the casinos and slots.’’

Harshbarger argues the bill also contains the seeds of its own undoing, because many local officials and developers will probably sue the state or the gambling commission once they realize the process is rigged to favor a select few. “There’s a lot of greed and self interest at play here, and right now everyone thinks they won,’’ he said.

After developers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and then lose out on licenses, “I doubt they are going to walk away peacefully,’’ he said.

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.