State Senate approves casino bill
The Massachusetts Senate approved casino gambling yesterday, setting the stage for Governor Deval Patrick to sign the measure by the end of this year, with slot machines arriving as early as 2012.
Proponents called it the culmination of a decades-long debate, and said the 24-14 vote offers an opportunity to recapture hundreds of millions of gambling dollars that have crossed state lines - mostly to casinos in Connecticut - as well as the jobs that accompany them.
“The must-haves for me are jobs, and that’s what it’s all about,’’ said Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat. “We have over 250,000 people out of work in the Commonwealth, and that’s why we’re doing this bill.’’
Opponents warned of spiking crime, increased addiction, and potential corruption, and said the state’s historic character would be forever compromised as local businesses are squeezed out by new competition.
“This is a fancy name for a tax on the poor,’’ said Senator Sonia Chang Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat.
But the Senate’s vote put many of those arguments in the rearview mirror, at least at the state level.
The House overwhelmingly passed a similar proposal last month, and Patrick has said he agrees with the major elements approved by both chambers. Yesterday his office said in a statement that he was “pleased to see continued movement on a gambling bill.’’
The House and Senate now have to work out what several lawmakers characterized as minor differences in the bills, including variations over who would be allowed to approve a casino at the local level, before submitting a final version to Patrick. Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who helped write the legislation, predicted the governor would have a final product on his desk by Thanksgiving. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo agreed the House and Senate would move quickly.
“We’ve got a good foundation,’’ DeLeo said yesterday. “The good thing is that the major pieces of the bill are in place.’’
After a drawn-out dispute between Patrick and DeLeo last year over the number and types of gambling facilities that would be allowed, Beacon Hill’s power brokers spent the summer behind closed doors, ironing out their differences, to help ensure approval this time.
The proposal would authorize up to three full-scale casinos: one designated for Western Massachusetts, another in the southeast, and a third in or around Boston or Worcester. It would also allow a slot machine parlor, which could be located anywhere in the state.
The bill would give the Mashpee Wampanoag a leg up in obtaining the right to open the casino in the southeast, one of several provisions that could prompt a court battle among competing developers that could delay construction.
Developers, who have spent millions lobbying the Legislature over the past four years, have been lining up potential sites around the state, including the Suffolk Downs race track in East Boston, a spot in Palmer, Plainridge Race Course in Plainville, and various locations in the South Coast.
Casino gambling has proliferated throughout the Northeast in recent years, as cash-strapped states have sought a way to balance their budgets without raising taxes. Massachusetts’ decision to enter the industry has prompted another flurry of activity among border states, including New York and New Hampshire, with lawmakers eager to get a slice of the market share.
One oft-cited Patrick administration study estimated it could take five years to set up regulations and build full-scale casinos in Massachusetts. But DeLeo and Rosenberg have predicted a shorter time-frame, perhaps two to three years for a full-scale casino. And they say a slot parlor could be up and running within a year, because it requires far less capital investment than resort-style casinos and could be housed at an existing track.
For the full-scale casinos, the state envisions something akin to Mohegan Sun, which has a full compliment of table games, restaurants, and live entertainment. The proposals require a minimum $500 million investment and the promise of a hotel in order to win a full casino license.
Operators would pay the state a licensing fee of at least $85 million, with the slot parlor paying $25 million. Casinos would be taxed at 25 percent, while the slot parlor would pay 55 percent under the Senate's plan and 49 percent under the House plan. The state’s share would be divvied up for a number of purposes, including schools, the state’s rainy day fund, transportation projects, and gambling addiction programs.
But before any facilities are built, the bills would require communities to approve casinos in a referendum. That issue is one of the few sticking points between the House and Senate. The House version exempts Boston, Springfield, and Worcester from a citywide vote. In those cities only a local neighborhood or ward would be allowed to decide whether a casino can be built. The Senate bill carves out only Boston and Worcester, but it leaves it up to their city councils to decide who can vote.
Opponents see local approval as the next battlefront for casinos. Opposition groups have already formed near several potential locations, including East Boston and the southeastern part of the state.
“It moves to those fights,’’ said Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat. “Most people are very nervous about having a casino in their neighborhood.’’
The bill would designate a five-member gambling commission - appointed by the governor, the treasurer, and the attorney general - to make most of the major decisions about where casinos can open, the final licensing fee, and other regulations.
That commission would decide how much slot machines would have to pay out to players. Rosenberg said on average, slot machines pay out 92 percent of what they take in. But some states allow casinos to pay out closer to 80 percent, he said.
The Senate bill also differs from the House in two other areas. It includes a happy-hour provision to allow restaurants and bars around the state to provide free and discounted drinks, as a way to compete with casinos.
It requires lawmakers to remain out of office for a year before they can take a job with a casino. The House bill has no such requirement.
The initial proposal in the Senate called for a five-year moratorium, but Senate leaders balked, taking the debate behind closed doors before emerging with a one-year ban.
Correction: The original version misstated which cities are carved out in the Senate version of the bill.