House Speaker Robert DeLeo reignited the debate over expanded gambling in Massachusetts March 4, proposing to build two casinos and add slot machines at the state's four racetracks to generate badly needed revenue and create jobs for blue-collar workers.
In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, DeLeo said expanded gambling would complement recent tax investments in expanding the life sciences and clean energy sectors. While those have boosted white-collar employment, he said, blue-collar workers in the construction and service industries continue to suffer.
“I have cautioned before and I will caution again: Gaming is not a panacea," DeLeo said. “But it is a plan that creates a new economic sector and new jobs in Massachusetts when we need them most.”
DeLeo said he will file a bill later this month.
“The time for talk has passed," he said. “We now have to move on. We now have to take action.”
The speaker aimed to soften expected opposition, saying the bill will propose using a portion of anticipated licensing fees to support existing manufacturers and lure new ones to Massachusetts. He said a fund would assist them with capital improvements, though he did not give specifics.
He also pledged to use some of the fees to enhance partnerships between community colleges, vocational schools, and various industries.
In addition, DeLeo acknowledged concerns about the social costs—in terms of increased crime, divorce, and alcohol and gambling abuse—that may come from expanded gambling.
“There is no doubt there is a social cost to gaming. But, too often we forget, there is also a social cost to joblessness. We need to get people working. We will devote a portion of any gaming revenue to addiction-treatment programs,” he said.
Massachusetts already allows gambling through its lottery games and live racing. But lottery revenues, whose proceeds are a vital source of cash for cities and towns, have fallen amid the recession. The state's two horse racing and two former greyhound tracks, both of which now offer only simulcast racing following a ban on dog racing, also have suffered.
In 2007, Patrick proposed building three resort-style casinos across the state to create jobs, add tax revenue and capture some of the money Massachusetts gamblers were spending at slot parlors and casinos in neighboring Rhode Island and Connecticut. Then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi opposed the plan, and it failed in the House by a vote of 106-48 in March 2008.
DiMasi resigned last year amid an ethics probe, and DeLeo has signaled his support for revisiting the issue.
Senate president Therese Murray, in her own appearance before the Chamber last year, mimicked pulling a slot-machine arm and said, “Ka-Ching!” when asked for her thoughts on expanded gaming in the state.
Both she and Patrick have questioned whether slot parlors will create sufficient jobs, the governor has not threatened a veto over that provision.
The issue is personal to DeLeo, though. There are two in the Winthop Democrat's district: Suffolk Downs in Boston, which continues to offer live horse racing, and Wonderland in Revere, which offers only simulcast races after a dog-racing ban forced it to stop live greyhound races as of Jan. 1.
He told the chamber that putting a limited number of slots at venues that already have wagering will provide “a more immediate form of revenue.” He said he was trying to determine the appropriate number to support the tracks while not dampening a gambling company's interest in building a casino.
And he said building two casinos—not the three proposed by Patrick—would avoid diluting their impact and “dooming them from the start.” He later told reporters he would not play a role in their siting, even though Suffolk Downs is in his district and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino favors a license for it.
While DeLeo pledged to file the bill this month, the immediate affect of any legislation is in doubt. The state would have to establish and staff a new gambling commission, and overhaul its criminal and financial-reporting statutes, before additional gambling sites are created.
The current Massachusetts fiscal year ends June 30, and the next begins July 1. Administration and legislative financial experts have been wary of factoring any gambling revenues into their budget proposals before the end of the next fiscal year on June 30, 2011.