Massachusetts Still Struggling Over Casino Approvals

Less than two weeks after the Massachusetts House approved casino gambling in the state, the Senate had a contentious debate over a revolving door proposal to force lawmakers to wait five years after leaving office before getting a job with a casino.

The Massachusetts House approved a bill authorizing three resort casinos and one slots-only gaming parlor by an overwhelming 123-32 vote on September 14. House Speaker Robert A, DeLeo, a  Democrat, said the first slot parlor could open within a year, with casinos to follow two or more years after that, the Boston Globe reported. “We’re taking a major step in the creation of jobs,” said DeLeo, a long time supporter of expanded gaming in the state. “We are right now in Massachusetts — or have been — in a blue collar depression…this is a workforce that we really have to address,” the Globe reported.

Bay State legislators have been struggling over proposed casinos for years and have yet to approve and implement a casino plan. The dire economy and high unemployment over the past two years led to a new consensus among Gov. Deval Patrick and two chief legislators who support gaming, the Globe said. Both the House and Senate passed a casino bill last year, but the deal disintegrated when Patrick disagreed about the size and type of facilities, the Globe said.

Massachusetts is losing pots of money to gaming establishments in Connecticut. Rhode Island and Maine, according to this year’s annual New England Gaming Research Project report by Dr. Clyde Barrow at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Policy Analysis. Barrow found that Massachusetts residents generate more tax revenues to  Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine state governments combined that the residents of any other state “without Massachusetts hosting a single casino gaming venue within its borders.”  Since 2004, Bay State residents contributed 36.61% or nearly $1.6 billion  of all gaming tax revenues generated by New England residents at the region’s two destination resort casinos in Connecticut and three slot parlors in Rhode Island and Maine. “Massachusetts residents’ spending at those five gaming and entertainment venues last year (2010)  alone generated nearly $222 million in tax revenues to those states’ treasuries: more than $86 million to Connecticut, more than $135 million to Rhode Island, and about $287,000 to Maine,” Barrow wrote.

The casino bill passed by the House requires each casino licensee to pay at least $85 million to the state and require developers to invest at least $500 million in their resorts. The state would collect one quarter of the casinos’ profits as a tax. The slot parlor would pay a $25 million fee, at minimum, and be required to invest at least $125 million. It would pay a 40 percent tax, plus an additional 9 percent toward increasing purses for the flagging horse racing industry, the Boston Globe said. The bill would give an Indian tribe, most likely the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a year to reach a deal with the governor to open a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts. If the deal can’t be sealed in a year, the state would offer the license to a commercial casino. The Mashpee Tribe has a pending application for land into trust at the Department of the Interior, which has been stalled because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri ruling.

Not all of the legislators supported the bill. Democratic Rep. Ruth B. Balser said the casino approval ‘is a race to the bottom,” the Globe said. Republican Representative James Lyons said that by passing the bill the Senate would be  “turning our backs on history.”

On September 27 – less than two weeks after the House passed the casino bill — the Senate debate over casino gambling turned contentious when senators accused each other “of pandering to the public’s skepticism of Beacon Hill politics,” the Associated Press (AP) reported. Sen. James Eldridge, a Democrat, sponsored an amendment that would prohibit lawmakers from working for a casino for five years after leaving office. Eldridge said it was important to make it absolutely clear that lawmakers voting to license casinos in Massachusetts were working in the best interest of the state, not their own pockets, Business Week reported.  “We need to keep some space between lawmakers and casinos,” he said. His comments sparked outrage among some lawmakers who accused him of stoking the public’s perception of corruption at the Statehouse, Business Week said. In the end the Senate approved a new amendment 36-1 that creates a one-year “cooling-off period” instead of a five-year ban.

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