Casino opponents won't fold their cards yet

Oct 25, 2009 8:33 PM
Staff & Wire Reports |

They're outmatched and outspent, but casino opponents say they're not folding their cards yet, even as pressure mounts on Massachusetts lawmakers to legalize new forms of gambling.

Their main defender, former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, is out of office and under indictment. The state's sputtering economy is making it easier for casino backers to dangle the promise of hundreds of millions in new revenues.

And the state's top three political leaders - Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo - all support licensing casinos.

But Kathleen Norbut, president of United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, said despite the growing momentum, casinos and slot machines are still a bad bet.

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Norbut and other opponents hope to drive home their point at a public hearing Thursday at the Statehouse, the first major casino hearing of the session. Lawmakers plan to hear testimony on more than a dozen bills on everything from resort casinos and slot parlors to video lottery games.

Opponents say lawmakers should reject the lure of "phony prosperity."

"It's a predatory business. It sucks more money from the local economy and residents than it returns," Norbut said. "It's a short-term fix."

That could be a tough sell to lawmakers who are under increasing pressure to bring more jobs to the state.

Rep. Brian Dempsey, House chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, said the state's economic climate is forcing some lawmakers to give casinos a second look.

"I think people are rethinking this a bit, especially around revenues and jobs," said Dempsey, D-Haverhill. "But they still have to be convinced this is the right direction for the commonwealth."

While 16 bills are scheduled for the public hearing, Dempsey said he anticipates working with DeLeo to come up with a single casino bill to present to House lawmakers after the first of the year.

Senate Chairman Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said she expects to spend much of the hearing listening to supporters and opponents. Even though the state is in the midst of a fiscal crunch, that shouldn't be a deciding factor, Spilka said.

"Ultimately the decision is a matter of public policy. Is this something that the commonwealth of Massachusetts should do?" Spilka said. "It's not the answer to our budget, that's for sure."

Opponents agree.

Sen. Susan Tucker, one of the most vocal foes of expanded gambling, say supporters who point to the state's fiscal crisis are inflating the money-making potential of casinos.

Tucker said that before the state moves ahead with any casino legislation it should commission a new study on the economic pros and cons.

"We can't gamble our way out of this fiscal crisis," Tucker said. "The (casino) industry takes money out of the pockets of working families and makes extremely wealthy men even wealthier."

But supporters say it's shortsighted of Massachusetts not to consider casinos. They say Massachusetts residents already spend money in casinos - they just go across the border to neighboring states.

Meanwhile, casino developers are trying to sway public opinion. Mohegan Sun said it would hold the first of several "community conversations" Tuesday to talk about its plans to open a casino resort in western Massachusetts.

Mohegan Sun hopes to develop a resort on a parcel of land adjacent to the Massachusetts Turnpike in Palmer. They said it would feature a 600-room hotel and spa, casino gaming and retail stores and restaurants.

Pro-gambling groups have ramped up their lobbying efforts in Massachusetts, a recent review of state lobbying records by The Associated Press found. In 2005, companies and groups pushing legalized gambling spent $764,500 on lobbyists to press their message on Beacon Hill. During the first six months of 2009, those same interests surpassed that total, pouring $777,983 into lobbying.

Norbut said she knows opponents are being outspent on Beacon Hill, but still hopes to win over enough lawmakers to block any casino legislation.

The last vote on casinos was in March 2008, when the House voted 106-48 to send a casino licensing bill to a study committee, effectively killing it for the session.

"We've faced other difficult times in the past, but we did not make the decision to have state sponsored exploitation and oppression of one group of people to benefit another," she said.

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