Patrick proposes three casinos across Massachusetts

By Ken Maguire
Boston, Massachusetts (AP) 9-07

With developers eager for licenses to open casinos across Massachusetts, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi doused expectations of Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to allow three resort casinos in a bid to raise billions of dollars in revenue.

DiMasi’s reaction to Patrick’s proposal to generate $450 million in annual tax revenue to fund transportation upgrades and property tax relief foreshadowed what could be a test of wills, and political clout, in months to come.

“I’m skeptical,” said DiMasi, who last year helped block a bill to expand legalized gambling, and on Monday expressed concern about social ills related to casinos. “That has to do with the image of Massachusetts and what we stand for here, and whether or not we want to accept this kind of casino culture and casino economy here in Massachusetts.”

Under Patrick’s plan, the “tasteful and appropriate” casinos would be distributed one each in the western, southeastern and greater metropolitan Boston regions of the state, he said. The licenses would be put up for bid in a competitive process open to Indian tribes and casino companies.

The bidding alone would generate hundreds of millions of dollars, and once the three casinos are built out, the state would receive up to $450 million in tax revenue every year, he said. That’s after setting aside public health treatment funds, community mitigation costs, and factoring in a 5 percent hit to the state lottery’s revenues.

“Casino gambling is neither a cure all nor the end of civilization,” Patrick said. “On balance, however, and under certain conditions, I believe resort casinos can work well in, and for, the commonwealth.”

Patrick’s announcement came after months of internal discussion, and on the same day a transportation finance report recommended the politically toxic idea of raising the state’s gas tax to pay for $19 billion in needed repairs to the state’s transportation system over the next 20 years.

Casino revenue would be directed to property tax credits – fulfilling one of his campaign pledges – and to fixing roads and bridges, which he said “are showing the effect of over 16 years of neglect.”

Patrick said the casinos would generate more than $2 billion annually in economic activity and create “good jobs at good wages.” He said “tens of thousands” of construction jobs would be created to build the facilities.

However, lawmakers must approve expanding legalized gambling beyond the state lottery and four racetracks, and DiMasi said Monday he was not persuaded by Patrick’s plan. Last year, the House killed a measure to install slot machines at racetracks by a 100-55 vote.

“As I stand here today, I am opposed, but I am giving the governor the benefit of looking at his proposal at this particular time and whether or not he can convince us in the House and my membership as to whether or not to proceed down this path,” DiMasi said.

Senate President Therese Murray sounded a more optimistic note.

“If you look at the revenue and the need for revenues, it’s probably something we want to look at but there’s a lot we have to look over,” she said. “We have to look at the social and economic impacts.”

Casino developers quickly endorsed Patrick’s plan. Suffolk Downs Chairman Bill Mulrow touted the Boston racetrack’s proximity to Logan International Aiport as easy for tourists, and said the facility’s infrastructure make it a logical choice. It also has the backing of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

In the western Massachusetts town of Palmer, developer Leon Dragone and the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut – which operates Mohegan Sun casino – recently signed an agreement to pursue a casino on land near the Massachusetts Turnpike. They applauded Patrick’s plan, and Dragone pointed to the Mohegans’ experience “of working closely with the host community as well as local and state leaders.”

Patrick’s plan follows a proposal by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a $1 billion casino on land it owns in Middleborough. The tribe could either try to outbid others for one of the licenses proposed by Patrick, or continue along a more lengthy track to win federal approval that could result in a fourth casino in the state.

“I take the governor’s proposal very seriously, and I look forward to talking with him ... and seeing how the tribe and state can work together toward our shared goals,” tribal Chairman Shawn Hendricks said, adding that he wants to read Patrick’s legislation before deciding whether to bid.

The governor said at least one of the licenses would have “a Native American component.”

“I fully expect that we will give special weight to the tribe. I think they have a special role and interest,” he said of the Mashpee Wampanoags.

“I just can’t tell you whether that means reserving one of the licenses, or giving special weight to one or more of the licenses with the tribe as a partner,” he said.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Indians have declared that they would also open a casino if their Mashpee counterparts do the same. Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal Chairman Donald Widdiss did not return a call to comment Monday.

Patrick’s office did not put an immediate timetable on when the legislation would be filed.

Gambling opponents already are mobilizing against the plan, arguing the casinos won’t be the cash cow Patrick hopes and will end up costing the state money – primarily lottery revenues – while destroying its character.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s four bishops, urged the Legislature to reject the plan. In a statement, it said casinos will create addicted gamblers and that “the harm will reach far beyond individual gamblers by affecting their spouses, children, dependents, employers and the community in which they live.”

Patrick said he knows he’s in for a fight.

“I didn’t make this proposal without understanding that it’s going to take some work to get it passed,” he said.