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Mass. lawmakers OK 3 casino, 1 slots parlor bill

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / November 15, 2011

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BOSTON—Gov. Deval Patrick, five years after he first pledged to bring casino gambling to the state, was on the verge of a historic victory Tuesday after lawmakers approved a bill to license three casinos and a slots parlor.

The win caps a legislative odyssey for Patrick, who battled reluctant Statehouse leaders and angered some of his own supporters as he pressed to dramatically expand gambling.

In its broad strokes, the bill is similar to the proposal Patrick first floated in 2007 to create three "resort-style casinos" in the state. Patrick, a Democrat, doesn't favor a slots parlor but has indicated he could accept it as part of a deal.

The goal of the bill is to generate millions of dollars in new revenue while creating thousands of jobs and putting Massachusetts in direct competition with nearby states that already allow casinos or slots machines.

Patrick hinted at the historic nature of the bill when quizzed by reporters about whether he would sign it.

"We're still in the process of evaluating the fine print, but the bill seems to conform with the general principles and features that we have discussed and agreed to," he said Tuesday. "It looks like a long chapter in the debate around gaming is about to come to a close."

The House voted 118-33 in the afternoon to accept the compromise bill. The Senate quickly followed, approving the bill on a 23-14 vote.

The Senate adjourned before taking a final procedural vote needed to send the bill to Patrick's desk.

If the bill becomes law, it could still take several years before any casino opens its doors in the state. A slots parlor could open sooner.

Bids for the casino licenses would start at $85 million. Bids for the slots parlor license would start at $25 million.

Rep. Joseph Wagner helped shepherd the bill through the House and sat on the six-member conference committee.

"We think it's a reasonable, good and fair compromise," said Wagner, D-Chicopee.

Wagner defended key compromises in the final bill, including a decision to drop an amendment tacked on to the Senate bill that could have lifted restrictions on happy hours in Massachusetts at bars and restaurants by giving those establishments that same ability to offer free or discounted drinks as the casinos.

Wagner said that the final bill will allow casinos to offer free or discounted drinks only on the gambling floor and not at restaurants or bars associated with the casinos.

Rep. Ruth Balser, an opponent of expanded gambling, said that allowing casinos and a slots parlor in Massachusetts is a big mistake and will target those who can ill afford to gamble away their paychecks.

"We know that crime will increase. We know that homelessness will increase. We know that incarceration will increase," said Balser, D-Newton. "This is the wrong direction for Massachusetts."

The final bill includes another Senate amendment that would bar state, county and local officials, including state lawmakers, from working in the casino industry for at least one year after leaving office if those officials were involved with voting on or regulating casinos.

Supporters of the amendment say it's needed to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest -- particularly in light of a series of recent public corruption scandals at the Statehouse.

Critics, including some lawmakers, said the measure unfairly ties their hands while stoking the public's perception of the untrustworthiness of public officials.

Another amendment in the final version of the bill would give the veto power over casinos to the wards where the casinos would be located in cities with populations of more than 125,000 residents. Cities could decide to opt out of that and hold city-wide referendums.

The amendment would currently only apply to Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

The bill also divvies up the licensing fees among a variety of funds.

Nearly a quarter of the fees are slated for the soon-to-be-created Healthcare Payment Reform Fund, designed to help the state rein in spiraling health care costs and encourage the adoption of electronic medical records.

The rest is split among a variety of funds, including a transportation and infrastructure development fund, a local capital projects fund, a community college fund and manufacturing and tourism funds.

Patrick expressed some concerns over the distribution of local aid from gambling revenues and a provision of the bill that would support the horse racing industry.

However, "I don't think any of those are showstoppers," he said.

Supporters of casino gambling have predicted it will create as many as 15,000 jobs in Massachusetts, including 6,000 temporary construction jobs, and generate at least $300 million in new annual revenue for the state and its cities and towns.

Twenty-five percent of casino revenue and 40 percent of slots revenue would be returned to the state and its cities and towns under the bill.

An anti-casino group led by former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger has blasted the job creation estimates as "wildly optimistic" and called the revenue projections outdated because they were based on pre-recession data.

The legalization of expanded gambling in Massachusetts is expected to set off a scramble for the licensing rights for each of the three casinos and the slots parlor, whose locations have not been determined.

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Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.