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Casinos get boost as DeLeo signs on

Joins Patrick, Murray in push for gaming

‘Given the importance of economic development, ... I have expanded my thinking,’ Robert A. DeLeo said. ‘Given the importance of economic development, ... I have expanded my thinking,’ Robert A. DeLeo said.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 19, 2009

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo expressed strong support yesterday for bringing resort-style casinos to Massachusetts, one of the clearest indications yet that lawmakers are poised to expand gambling as they seek fresh revenues in a down economy.

In a separate speech yesterday morning, Senate President Therese Murray also made the case that Massachusetts should legalize casinos, asserting that they would bring hundreds of new jobs and capture money currently going to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

The comments by DeLeo and Murray put the state’s top three political leaders on similar ground in support of resort-style casinos for the first time as the Legislature plans to begin considering a major bill as early as next month.

DeLeo has been a supporter of expanded gambling, but in the past has put an emphasis on installing slot machines at racetracks instead of building resort-style casinos complete with amenities such as hotels, shops, and golf courses.

“Given the importance of economic development, as well as the vital need for revenue, I have expanded my thinking,’’ DeLeo said in an address in Waltham to a meeting of Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “In addition to my backing of slots, I now support resort casinos.’’

At about the same time, Murray, speaking to the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, said: “The reality is that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to Connecticut casinos from Massachusetts residents every year. We need to explore ways how we can capture that revenue.’’

She said building casinos would means hundreds of construction jobs, as well as permanent employment once the casinos open.

In an interview yesterday, DeLeo said House lawmakers are drafting legislation, with hearings likely to begin next month.

A debate before the full House, he said, could begin before lawmakers recess in mid-November, but seems more likely early next year.

Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to license three resort casinos was defeated last year, in large part because of opposition by House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

With DiMasi now out of office, the debate has shifted dramatically: It is no longer about whether Massachusetts will see expanded gaming, but when and in what form.

“What has interested me all along is the jobs and the revenue,’’ Patrick told reporters yesterday in the Berkshires. “And I think there is a way to do this that maximizes the jobs and revenues and minimizes - not eliminates, minimizes - the adverse impacts.’’

Still, the casino industry has struggled mightily with the economic downturn, forcing many developers to scale back projects and focus on retaining their current properties, rather than on adding new ones.

The Globe reported Sunday that Foxwoods in Connecticut, which has long been a success story in the casino industry, laid off about 6 percent of its workforce last year and saw its revenues from slot machines plunge 13 percent in July, compared with the previous year.

Nonetheless, DeLeo cast the plan yesterday as a ministimulus package for Massachusetts, one he said would bring in new revenues and create jobs as the state seeks to recover economically.

“I’m still trying to formulate my ideas, but I’m hoping this will not just be a gaming bill, but also an economic development one,’’ DeLeo said in the interview.

“I’m just really concerned about the future,’’ he said. “I think the only way we’re going to get out of this economy is jobs, jobs, and more jobs.’’

He also said that lagging state revenues are an incentive to find a new source of money.

That argument may have more urgency after Patrick announced yesterday that he expects to make further spending cuts this year because of falling revenues.

“I don’t see an appetite for new taxes, and we don’t have much left in the rainy day fund,’’ DeLeo said. “We need to bring in new revenue.’’

He also argued that slot machines could be installed quickly at the racetracks, bringing in new revenues, while giving casino companies more time to build resort casinos, which would create new construction jobs.

DeLeo said one option that may be considered involves the licensing of two casinos, one in Eastern Massachusetts, one in Western Massachusetts, and then allowing slots at Plainridge and Raynham Park racetracks.

But when asked about installing slots at racetracks, Murray said she is “not hot on that, but I’m going to listen.’’

“That’s fast money,’’ she said in an interview. “But is it sustainable?’’

She cited Twin River in Rhode Island, which relies on slots and filed for bankruptcy in June.

She said several senators have been working on different proposals over the summer, but added that it will take time to put together the regulatory framework that would allow casino developers to begin building.

“It’s really a three-year process,’’ she said. “If we’re going to do it, we need to start.’’

Many specifics have to be worked out, including how many casinos would be licensed, whether there would be any preference given to a Native American tribe, and how potential developers would secure the rights to build.

Casino developers have been closely monitoring the gambling debate in Massachusetts and have scoured the state for land and partnerships.

Mohegan Sun in Connecticut has been laying the groundwork to build a casino in Palmer, a small community near Springfield. Several developers have looked at land in neighboring Warren.

Suffolk Downs in East Boston has been jockeying for the past two years, securing key political backing and trying to ensure that it has the inside track on a Boston-area casino. Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere has joined with Suffolk Downs to compete for one casino license.

One potential wrinkle is the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose attempt to use its federal rights to open a casino in Middleborough has been derailed by a US Supreme Court ruling.

There are several other developers who have hired lobbyists and expressed interest in Massachusetts previously, but have not announced specific plans.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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