The push to bring casinos and racetrack slot parlors to Massachusetts is now a race against time, as the House and Senate prepare to reconcile a pair of expanded gambling bills that have a wide gulf between them.
House and Senate lawmakers, who took 105 days to negotiate dueling bills on safe driving and 56 to settle differences on a pair of kayak safety bills, may have less than 10 to achieve a compromise on their expanded gambling proposals, Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos said, minutes after the Senate voted 25-15 Thursday to approve a bill to spread three casinos across Massachusetts.
Sending the governor a bill by July 10 would give him his statutorily permitted 10 days to propose any amendments and 10 more days to issue any vetoes, while still leaving the Legislature wiggle room to respond by July 31, the scheduled end of formal business until January.
“The bottom line is — time is of the essence,” Mr. Panagiotakos said.
Although the bill passed by a comfortable margin, the vote denied Senate leaders a veto-proof majority, which could come into play if Gov. Deval Patrick rejects all or some portions of a compromise proposal.
Senate President Therese Murray declined to put a deadline on negotiations with the House, saying, “I’m not going to put a date on it. We want to give the governor enough time.”
Among the questions the conference committee will have to answer: How much gambling can the Massachusetts market support? Should casinos be sited regionally, or should the market dictate where they are located? How should casino revenue be applied? Could local Native American tribes demand casinos above and beyond the limits set by lawmakers?
The debate ended sourly for opponents of casino gambling, who warned that approving casinos would open a “Pandora’s box” of ills, including addiction, higher divorce rates, and domestic violence.
Lawmakers who represent districts with racetracks voted for the bill, saying they hoped that the conference committee would support slots at the state’s racetracks to save the hundreds of homegrown jobs that could be lost without an additional revenue source.
After the vote, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who represents a district with a racetrack and has become the tracks’ most prominent champion, said in a statement, “Passing expanded gaming legislation is vital to creating jobs and economic growth in Massachusetts. I look forward to working with the Senate to reach a compromise bill in a timely fashion.”
According to an official description of the Senate bill, the Senate anticipates that three casinos, placed in different regions of the state, could generate $350 million a year through a 25-percent tax, and support 15,000 permanent full-time jobs and 9,000 construction jobs. Hotels and associated attractions could bring in an additional $250 million a year, according to the summary provided by the Senate president’s office.
Revenue would be directed to mitigation for communities that host casinos, as well as their neighbors, addiction services, local aid, and the establishment of a regulatory structure to oversee expanded gambling. Casino developers would be required to pay up-front licensing fees of $75 million each — of which $105 million would go to the state’s rainy-day fund, $85 million would bolster aid to cities and towns, and $15 million would go to community mitigation.
Of the annual gaming revenue, 30 percent would go to reduce Massachusetts’s debt load, 30 percent would go to various “economic development programs,” 30 percent would bolster local aid and 10 percent would go to mitigation for communities, addicts, cultural programs, and struggling racetracks.
The bill establishes new money-laundering statutes and enhances law enforcement’s ability to wiretap in instances where gaming crimes are suspected. Senators also approved a ban on smoking in casinos that some critics worried would be watered down in conference committee. Other adopted amendments included a two-year extension on simulcasting at state racetracks, a proposal to send 1 percent of casino revenue to senior citizen property tax relief, and the removal of a restriction on land in Fall River, where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has indicated a desire to build a casino.
Senators voting against the proposal included Sens. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre), Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain), Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), James Eldridge (D-Acton), Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln), Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth), Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), Robert O’Leary (D-Barnstable), Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield), Tucker (D-Andover) and Marian Walsh (D-West Roxbury). Senate President Murray joined 23 Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Michael Knapik of Westfield, in supporting the bill.