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Final approval on casinos may come today

Late trim in local aid a concern to Patrick

By Noah Bierman and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / November 16, 2011

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State lawmakers gave a tentative green light yesterday to a bill authorizing three resort-style casinos and one slot machine parlor, but stopped short of giving the final approval that would have sent the measure to Governor Deval Patrick’s desk.

The preliminary votes taken last night are expected to be finalized today, ending years of contentious debate and setting Massachusetts on a path toward slot machines, poker, and blackjack tables.

Patrick said there are no “show-stoppers’’ that would prevent him from signing the bill, but added that he was surprised by and worried about a last-minute change that would take more than $10 million a year that had been devoted to local aid in some earlier versions of the bill and rechannel it to the horse racing industry.

The bill passed the Senate, 23 to 14, on a preliminary vote and the House by a vote of 118 to 33. Observers had expected both chambers to give final approval last night.

The casino action was taken in a flurry of last-minute votes on Beacon Hill as lawmakers prepare for the winter recess that was scheduled to begin tonight.

Lawmakers did approve and send to Patrick’s desk reductions in state pension benefits for new hires. That bill would raise the retirement age from between 55 and 65 to between ages 60 and 67 for most state employees hired after April 2 of next year. The bill is projected to save the state $5 billion over the next 30 years.

Also on its way to the governor’s desk is a measure that would crack down on human trafficking. The House, meanwhile, approved a controversial measure to extend civil rights protections for transgendered people.

But it has been casinos that have dominated talk on Beacon Hill for four years. The most frequently cited state report on gambling estimates that casinos could be up and running within five years, though some lawmakers have talked of more ambitious timetables of two to three years. They have said that a slot machine parlor could open sooner, perhaps less than a year from now, given the low threshold for investment.

The state seemed on the verge of approving casinos last year, but the deal fell apart amid finger-pointing between Patrick and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a fellow Democrat whose district abuts Suffolk Downs and who has made casino gambling a priority.

“It looks like a long chapter in the debate around gaming is about to come to a close,’’ Patrick said yesterday.

The governor, in his comments yesterday, continued his attempt to portray casinos as only a small part of his strategy to cut the state’s unemployment rate. “Gaming has never been central to the strategy, but it can help,’’ he said.

Others were more bullish, insisting the addition of casinos would bring thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new state revenue every year.

“Day in and day out, the number one call I get from my constituents is about jobs, jobs, jobs,’’ said Representative Michael D. Brady, a Brockton Republican.

But casino opponents said the boost to the state is illusory, because addiction and income inequality will increase.

“It’s very sad that arguments about economic development, which are easily disputed, are going to allow for a devastating impact on the families and individuals of Massachusetts,’’ said Representative Ruth E. Balser, a Newton Democrat.

Critics also questioned why House and Senate negotiators who crafted the final bill behind closed doors added a provision late Monday night that increased the amount of casino revenue devoted to “the horse racing development fund.’’

The House and Senate had both voted to provide a portion of the slot parlor revenue to the fund, which would be devoted to increasing the size of horse racing purses, hiring industry employees, adding breeding farms, and offering other assistance, including health and pension benefits for horse racing workers.

But negotiators added more money from gambling revenue, tapping both up-front licensing money and some money from annual casino profits.

Some of that money had initially been directed for aid to cities and towns in the Senate version of the bill and to community preservation efforts in the House version.

The casino bill had been described as a boon to local governments and property tax payers. But the share of casino tax revenue devoted to local aid dropped from 25 percent when the bill was released in September to 20 percent in the version approved yesterday.

Backers of that provision counter that local communities would also benefit from money dedicated to schools, transportation, and other programs.

They said the horse racing industry has a natural link to casinos, and the benefits to farms and agriculture would help provide jobs and open space.

“That special interest promotes agriculture,’’ said Senator Stephen M. Brewer, a Barre Democrat who leads the Senate’s budget committee. “It employs people and preserves open space.’’

But critics say it is an example of the gambling bill’s skewed priorities.

“It seems like more money going to the horse racing industry is money going to a special interest and not local communities,’’ said James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and a casino opponent.

Patrick called the provision “worrisome’’ and “a little bit of a surprise.’’ He said it would not cause him to veto the bill, and he would not say whether he would use his ability to amend the bill before signing it.

The human trafficking measure now on its way to the governor’s desk would add criminal penalties for anyone involved in forcing children and other vulnerable people into labor or sexual servitude. “If you’re going to engage in the unthinkable exploitation of children and other people, you’re going to pay the price,’’ Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, said in a prepared statement.

The House, by a 95-to-58 vote, passed a bill extending civil rights protection to transgendered people, a measure debated on Beacon Hill for years.

Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr., a Somerville Democrat, read aloud the names of several transgendered people who, he said, had been killed because of their gender identity. He urged legislators to see transgender people as “real people’’ and reject what he called fearmongering by the bill’s opponents.

“This community has suffered far too many tragedies,’’ he said.

Opponents suggested the bill was too vague to be easily complied with and called it a distraction from job-creating measures. Representative Sheila C. Harrington, a Groton Republican, predicted that the legislation would expose businesses to “a Pandora’s box of litigation.’’

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