Governor Deval Patrick has signed the bill legalizing casinos in Massachusetts, ending a years long battle on Beacon Hill and paving the way for full-scale casinos and slots in this state.
In a bill-signing ceremony in his office this morning, the governor, flanked by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, made Massachusetts the 40th state in the country to legalize casinos and slot parlors.
“Now the work will turn to getting it right in the implementation,’’ Patrick said as he put his signature on the bill just after 10:30 a.m.
The historic signing follows years of intense lobbying by the casino industry and several near misses in the Legislature. The bill, approved by lawmakers on a final vote in the waning hours of the legislative session last week, allows three full-scale casinos and one slot machine parlor.
Speaking at this morning’s ceremony, DeLeo said, “there were times when I would question whether we would ever come to this day.’’
Senate President Therese Murray, who bristled at the attention gambling received at the end of the legislative session, did not attend today’s signing. But lawmakers who helped craft the legislation were there, along with former state senator Steven Tolman, who stepped down from the Senate weeks ago to lead the state’s AFL-CIO, a major casino backer.
Lawmakers say the slot parlor, which requires minimal investment, could open within a year. There is disagreement over how long it will take to open the casinos: a state report has suggested a five-year timetable is possible while proponents have said it could take as little as three to four years.
Supporters, including Patrick and the state’s other most powerful Democrats, say casinos will help reduce the state’s unemployment problem and revitalize the state budget. They say state residents are already spending freely at casinos in neighboring states.
Opponents counter that the state will lose money combating increased crime and dependency and diminish residents’ quality of life through increased addiction.
The focus on gambling now shifts to where casinos will be located. The bill allows for three casinos in separate regions of the state: one in the Boston area that extends to Worcester; one for Western Massachusetts; and a third for Southeastern Massachusetts. The bill gives the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe a leg up in winning the right to operate in the Southeastern part of the state.
In addition to the three casinos, the slot machine parlor can open anywhere in the state.
A powerful five-member state gambling commission will choose which developers win the right to open the casinos. The bill gives Governor Patrick, Treasurer Steve Grossman, and Attorney General Martha Coakley 120 days to appoint the commissioners. The commission will also set up key regulations, including the rate slot machines will have to pay out to bettors.
The commission will choose developers based on a number of factors, including a requirement that they win local approval in a ballot referendum to open a gambling facility.
In legalizing casinos, Massachusetts joins a growing group of states.
The American Gaming Association lists 16 states that allow standard casinos under state laws. In addition, 12 states allow slot machines at state race tracks while Indian tribes operate gambling facilities in 28 states. The association says 39 states have at least one form of slot, casino, or tribal gambling.
Massachusetts state lawmakers hope to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees and taxes from the casinos. They have committed to using the proceeds on a host of causes, including local aid, health care reform, addiction prevention, and assistance to the struggling horse racing industry.
Gambling has dominated talk on Beacon Hill for much of the last several years. Last year, there was general agreement among Patrick and powerful lawmakers who favored legalizing casinos. But the deal fell apart, even after it passed both the House and Senate, because Patrick disagreed with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo over the number and type of slot facilities.
This year, Beacon Hill’s top players settled the major issues behind closed doors before collectively releasing the bill.