Dot lawmakers weigh Patrick's casino plan

Gov. Deval Patrick delayed months before publicly taking a pro-casino gambling stance on Monday, unveiling a proposal for three casino licenses in the state. State legislators are currently pouring over his plan, giving the benefit of the doubt, they say, but none deny there is a storm brewing on the hill.

Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi issued a careful but "skeptical" statement the following day, but included pointed questions that revealed his position on the issue:

"Will the so-called revenue be merely offset by the obvious negative effects of gambling on public safety, personal finances and families?" read the statement. "And why would we want to do something of this nature that will so dramatically change the landscape and image of the commonwealth?"

Locally, many of Dorchester's legislators were also studying the proposal, and a cursory survey reveals they are just as split on their opinion of the proposal as they are on a potential bill's chances for survival.

"I don't see the appetite for the House to pass any legislation on any form of casino gambling," commented state Rep. Martin Walsh, who is still considering his own position. "Slot machines lost here two years ago by what I think was a 27 vote margin."

"I like it," said Rep. Brian Wallace. "There's a lot of revenue involved. People from Mass. made 6.3 million trips to Connecticut and Rhode Island last year for gaming purposes. Who are we to say you can play the Kenos but you can't do this? I think it's hypocritical. And as far as the social ills, we're dealing with the social ills now except we're not making any money. I think the Governor's proposal is well thought out and has a good chance of passing."

Senator Jack Hart, chair of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee where the bill could possibly end up, was undecided.

"I'm in the process of going over the proposal as we speak," said Hart. "There's a great debate that will take place. I represent a district where the social ills of gambling are already apparent. There are buses that leave Dorchester every morning that take the elderly and other people to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. The concern that I have is that the casinos are seen as some form of regressive tax base. And there are more people on the lower end of the economic scale that go. I would be concerned how we mitigate that as we go forward."

"The casino issue, I've voted consistently against it in the house, and I don't see anything here that will change my mind," said Rep. Marie St. Fleur.

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry said she is interested in Patrick's proposal, but wants to make sure the total number of casinos is limited to three, which means the Mashpee Wompanoag tribe in Middleborough would get one of the licenses, since with federal recognition they might be able to build without the license.

"It'll be an interesting debate," said Forry. "I think it's something we should look at if we don't want to raise taxes."

Rep. Willie Mae Allen did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

In the neighborhoods, the opinion is every bit as varied as it is in the legislature.

"It's pretty clear that gambling can be as evil as any addiction, including drugs and alcohol," said Bill Walczak, executive director of the Codman Square Health Center. "The consequences of adding a casino can be dire, especially for poor or low-income communities. I know too many families that have been destroyed by gambling addictions. The idea of foisting responsibility for important things in the state's agenda on the working class and poor people is wrong."

"I think the Governor's proposal, after a cursory look, is great," said Phil Carver, president of the Pope's Hill Neighborhood Association. "If you're going to do it, you might as well go all the way. The community has been hemorrhaging millions of dollars to neighboring states. Universal healthcare, pre-kindergarten education, all of these things people want are going to cost money. There's only so much tax you can ask people for."

On any given day, hundreds of people make their way to Tedeschi's on Neponset Avenue at Tolman Street to play Keno and buy scratch tickets. Rep. Daniel Bosley from the First Berkshire District, an outspoken gambling opponent, likes to remind people that Mass Lottery originated as one little green ticket, and is now a forest of scratch and pull tab tickets, constant Keno and "Daily Race" games, and 15 different drawings for lottery-style games every week. It is considered to be one of the most successful lotteries in the nation.

"I like going to the casino just for the sport of it," said Phyllis Monteiro, a Dorchester resident picking up a couple Quik Picks at Tedeschi's. "However, I believe that if a casino comes to Boston, I don't think it's going to be a good thing. I think there are more gamblers than we know, and some of them are very bad gamblers, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the bad outweighs the good."

The Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling hasn't come out directly against the bill, but it does point out in a press release that the Commonwealth was ranked 19th in a 2005-2006 national survey of publicly funded gambling problem services. Massachusetts spends $0.12 per capita, versus number one-ranked Delaware, which spends $1.90. The Council also recently started an outreach program for Asian-American gamblers in Boston, including the Vietnamese-American community in Dorchester.

"Of course there should be a casino around here," said Dorchester resident Steve Hastings, while playing Keno at Tedeschi's. "People are going to spend their money anyway, why not around here?"

But, as he was tossing out losing tickets on his way out the door, Hastings also added that the state should put a toll booth in front of Tedeschi's, "so we won't come here anymore."