Senators stake out positions on casino gambling



State House, Boston, Thursday

Competing ideologies clashed during the opening round of the Senate casino debate Wednesday, with several camps emerging: casino proponents, backers of slot machines at racetracks, advocates for Native American tribes, outright opponents of all forms of expanded gambling, and Republican critics who say Democrats are depending too heavily on gambling for economic development solution.

The Senate completed a lengthy debate without advancing the bill authorizing three casinos or voting on any of the 164 pending amendments to the bill. The Senate adjourned when Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei used a parliamentary maneuver, calling on Senate clerks to print the titles of all of the amendments in the Senate calendar.

Casino supporters took a twofold approach, citing the potential creation of nearly 10,000 jobs at three casinos, and citing the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in new annual state revenue.

“This creates the revenue for the commonwealth without directly taxing citizens,” said Sen. Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell), who warned that onetime federal funds would be drying up, contributing to a potential $2.5 billion budget gap in the fiscal 2012 budget. “There will be some adverse effects. We are, I think, consciously adding remedies or resources to deal with those.”

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster), co-chair of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, took aim at the contention that expanded gambling would drive up addiction. “We cannot protect people from themselves,” she said. Speaking to “those that have said that it’s immoral to gamble,” Flanagan said, “How many raffle tickets have you bought from your local church? If this is such a horrible act, why is it in every aspect of our lives?”

Racetrack slot machine proponents argued that the state’s gambling market is big enough to support casinos and racinos, which Senate leaders, as well as Gov. Deval Patrick, have been cool to.

Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), whose district includes Raynham-Taunton Park, a former dog track and current off-track betting facility, said that if the Senate approves the gambling proposal as it is – without sanctioning racetrack slots – hundreds of track workers would lose their jobs.

“I can’t believe it, that we would have a piece of legislation that would actually eliminate existing jobs,” he said.

Sen. Susan Tucker, an ardent opponent of expanded gambling, warned of an uncontrollable industry that would only grow larger as the state grows dependent on it for revenue. She argued that factoring in losses to the state lottery, all the mitigation money for cities and towns siting casinos and funds to pay for addiction and other services for people affected by gambling, Massachusetts would lose money, not gain, on casinos.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz refuted Panagiotakos’s suggestion that gambling is a way to raise revenue without a tax.

“This bill is a tax bill,” she said, arguing that low-income gamblers lose a larger percentage of their annual income than those in higher income brackets. “This money doesn’t come from high rollers we see in James Bond movies.”

Sen. Robert O’Leary (D-Barnstable), who represents the two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts, both of which have expressed interest in building a casino, said he opposes casinos but believes the Senate was ill-advised in opting not to set aside a license for one of the tribes. He said Massachusetts will be the “weak member” of the partnership with casino developers, and he worried that failing to include the tribes could result in a fourth casino in Massachuestts.

After the session, Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei told reporters he opposed efforts to ban smoking in casinos: “Anybody who’s ever been to a casino knows that smoking takes place in a casino.” State law in Massachusetts bans smoking in most workplaces.

Asked whether supporters need to muster a veto-proof majority, Tisei, who is running for lieutenant governor on the GOP ticket, said, “I think the governor is so desperate for any casino bill to pass he’ll sign anything that comes to his desk.”

Senate budget committee vice chair Stephen Brewer said, “This bill’s been tailor-made for a conference committee since day one.” Brewer said, “I think the votes probably have been pretty well ascertained for a long time. It’s kind of like the death penalty. People know where they are for a long time on these things. You’re either there or you’re not there.” When a reporter noted that Brewer had been publicly noncommittal, the senator replied, “Because I’ve got a whole pocket full of amendments and I want them.”