Brewer predicts casino approval
June 16, 2010
By John J. Monahan TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
BOSTON — State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, predicted yesterday that the Senate will vote to authorize casino gambling next week.
However, he said, many aspects of the legislation, including mitigation for host and abutting communities, location of casinos and how they will be policed and taxed, have yet to be worked out.
“I think the votes are there for something in the Senate,” he said of licensing casinos, although he does not believe proposals for slot machines at racetracks, as called for in a House-approved bill for two casinos and four so-called racinos, will be included in the Senate bill.
Mr. Brewer, vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is expected to unveil its version of a three-casino bill Friday, said that while the legislation will establish a framework for casino operations, many of the details are likely to be left to a new state gaming commission.
The Senate is set to vote on its bill June 24. Differences with the House version would be worked out in a joint conference committee and then be sent to both chambers for an up or down enactment vote before going to the governor.
Senate leaders offered a sketch of their plan several weeks ago, saying it would provide for three casinos and no racino slot parlors, with one of the three casinos reserved for an American Indian tribe.
Unlike the House plan, which specified no geographical boundaries for siting two casinos, the Senate bill will delineate three casino zones: Southeastern Massachusetts, Eastern Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts. The boundaries of those zones, each of which could have a casino, have not been identified.
Mr. Brewer said yesterday that it was unclear from the outline of the bill which zone might encompass Central Massachusetts, but he wants all parts of the state to be eligible for casino proposals.
The three areas identified by lawmakers writing the bill this week behind closed doors could accommodate a number of proposed casino plans, including a Mashpee Tribe-run resort casino in Fall River, a commercial casino at a Palmer site being proposed by the developers of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, and a possible casino in Boston at Suffolk Downs.
If put out to bid for licensing proposals, however, numerous other companies are expected to compete for the commercial licenses, including some who have long targeted sites along Interstate 495 near the Massachusetts Turnpike for casino development.
The vote comes as polls show at least a third of the state opposes expanded gambling, but at a time when the state is desperate for new revenues and jobs.
Gambling opponents harshly criticized a publicly funded study of potential jobs and revenues commissioned by Senate Democrats. They said the report will be biased in favor of the casino industry. Representatives of United to Stop Slots said they believe the study is being cooked up to support the proposed large expansion of legalized gambling when the Senate bill is unveiled.
“We need answers about what is going on behind closed doors in the Senate: namely, why are they only looking at benefits, not costs? How much more taxpayer money is being wasted on this one-sided study?” said USS spokesman Robert Massie, who also questioned the failure of Senate leaders to disclose the name of the company hired to conduct the study.
The group said at a public hearing last week — the only hearing being held on the casino and racino proposals this year — that a number of Senate members acknowledged that expanded gaming would hurt families, lead to corruption and impose new burdens on taxpayers to deal with the social ills associated with casino gaming.
“When the deck is stacked, of course the odds look better,” Mr. Massie said of the Senate study. “But in a democracy, our leaders are charged with studying both sides — not just the side lobbyists, special interests, casino and campaign contributors want us to study.”
Mr. Brewer acknowledged that it has been difficult to point to reliable projections on job and revenue benefits.
“I’ve heard from 15,000cq jobs to 3,000 jobs from construction,” he said, as well as wide variations on projected permanent jobs and potential revenue. “Those job numbers and what the wages are, and what they could bring in versus what the impacts are, are all over the place.”
He said the state Lottery is expected to lose 5 to 8 percent of its revenues, which have pumped up to $900 million annually into schools throughout the state. That loss, he said, will have to be backfilled to maintain local aid levels, and he said the bills would create “a significant government bureaucracy that would have to be taken off the net” proceeds to the state.
Mr. Brewer wants the geographic zones for casinos to include Central Massachusetts one way or another. For example, the bill could allow bids for a casino in Palmer, or in nearby Warren or along Interstate 495.
Mr. Brewer wants local police to be given jurisdiction for responding to emergencies at casinos, as well as for traffic and safety oversight, and state police to be charged with enforcement of gambling laws.
He is also looking for ways to protect entertainment venues such as The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester and MassMutual Center in Springfield from unfair competition, as well as to clearly spelling out mitigation measures for communities.
While public debate has focused on various issues, from the kind of games allowed, conditions in casinos (including piped-in oxygen aimed at promoting more betting) and the as-yet unspecified tax rates on profits, Mr. Brewer said he is focused on community impacts.
“I don’t personally care what the indoor ambient air condition is in a casino. I am not going to micromanage that,” he said. “I want to make sure there are solid protections for communities.
“If I don’t get those protections, it won’t get my vote.”