Casino debate opens with claims of big money and jobs

Casino proponents opened debate on a much-anticipated gambling bill in the Massachusetts House this afternoon promising “thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.’’

The bill would authorize three Vegas-style casinos and a slot machine facility. It has broad support from Governor Deval Patrick as well as House and Senate leaders, all Democrats.

Throughout the afternoon, the debate played on as it has in years past, with proponents touting jobs and revenue and opponents warning of addiction, crime, and other social ills.

Despite the bill’s high profile, the halls of the State House were relative quiet today, perhaps because many advocates on both sides believe the bill’s passage is preordained.

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Representative Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and the lead sponsor of the bill, opened debate by proclaiming that he does not personally gamble, save the “occasional game of Keno.’’

“Personally, expanded gambling, I suppose I could take or leave,’’ he said. But “I can’t ignore the thousands of jobs and I won’t ignore the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.’’

Rep. Paul K. Frost, an Auburn Republican and casino supporter, argued that Massachusetts residents “have a right to make their own choices’’ on whether or not to gamble.

“You can’t legislate everything in life,’’ he said. “People [from Massachusetts] are gaming in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Las Vegas and Atlantic City.’’

But opponents pointed to other states that have casinos that have high rates of suicide and addiction.

“This is the model?’’ said Representative Ruth B. Balser, a Newton Democrat. “This is the race to the bottom.’’

She quoted Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffet: “There is nothing getting developed. It is a transfer of money.’’

Several opponents conceded that the state needs more revenue and jobs, but argued that resort casinos are the wrong solution.

Representative Thomas P. Conroy, a Wayland Democrat and a candidate for his party’s nomination for US Senate, said casinos are out of character with the Bay State’s existing tourism attractions: beaches, natural beauty and Colonial history.

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“It’s not clear that destination resort casinos are consistent with the overall brand Massachusetts offers in the tourism industry,’’ he said. “The idea of closed buildings with pumped in air and no windows…’’

By late afternoon, legislators had only begun considering the 154 amendments, dismissing many without debate. A measure requiring casinos to patrol their parking lots for children left in cars was one of the few that received quick passage.

Patrick reiterated his support for the bill this morning, conceding to reporters that there is “a very small proportion of people for whom this is not just harmless entertainment.’’

“So I think anybody who talks about expanded gaming, without acknowledging the human cost, is not dealing with the whole story,’’ he said. “But I do think that the bill offers some opportunities for us to invest in the kinds of programs that help.’’

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