REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: On the whole, Dot’s legislators like what they see in casino bill

Most members of the Dorchester delegation in the state House of Representatives sided with the majority of their colleagues last week in voting to support a bill aimed at bringing three casinos and one slot facility to the Bay State. The bill passed the full House by a 123 to 32 vote.

The Senate is expected to approve its version of the bill, which is strikingly similar to the House’s version, next week after debating a raft of amendments submitted by its members. Gov. Deval Patrick has sounded notes of support for the general framework of the bill.

But the Dorchester delegation in the upper chamber – Sens. Jack Hart and Sonia Chang-Diaz – will likely split on the bill if past votes and statements are any indication.

Hart, a South Boston Democrat, has often cited the potential for increased revenue to state coffers and construction jobs that casinos could bring. Supporters say the House bill will create 15,000 jobs and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars due to a 25 percent tax on casino earnings. But Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, is skeptical of the rosy economic forecasts.

She will mount a push for a change to the bill that would allow an entire municipality, faced with a casino going up inside its borders, to hold a referendum.

The bill approved by the House limits a referendum to the ward surrounding the casino in cities with more than 125,000 residents, such as Springfield, Worcester and Boston, which could see a casino at Suffolk Downs in the East Boston section of the city. Chang-Diaz is seeking to strip the House provision out of the bill and replace it with her own.

In a statement, she said the House bill’s provision takes away the “political rights” of constituents who would share in positive results of a casino as well as the negative, such as new burdens on public safety and public health.

“These consequences will affect all municipal residents, not just those within a few blocks’ radius of the casino,” she said. “It’s only fair that all affected residents have an equal say in whether or not the positive impacts of a casino outweigh the economic and social costs to their cities. This provision represents a disturbing example of how we are already changing the rules in Massachusetts to suit the needs of a problematic industry. We should stop this slide before it begins.”

House members tacked on amendments as well. Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, successfully pressed for two amendments focused on small business: One amendment calls for a gaming advisory committee to include local small businesses and chambers of commerce to be included as subcommittee members; the other amendment requires a study on the impact of casino development on local small businesses.

Forry, who is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry, is a member of the House leadership who voted against a similar bill filed by Gov. Patrick in 2008 when it was opposed by then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi. “I do think this is quite a different bill,” she said of her support for last week’s House-approved bill, backed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The new bill takes into account the possibility of a Native American tribe setting up a casino, Forry said. The governor’s bill left the door open for four Bay State casinos, one too many, she added.

The current House bill also ensures the involvement of businesses owned by veterans, minorities, and women during the various stages of casino construction, she said. “That does make a difference,” Forry said.

State Rep. Carlos Henriquez, a freshman Democrat who also represents Dorchester, cited the same factors in explaining his decision to vote for the bill. His predecessor, state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, opposed the casino bill in 2008.

State Reps. Russell Holmes of Mattapan and Nick Collins of South Boston, both Democrats who joined the House in 2010, also voted to support the legislation. Their predecessors, Willie Mae Allen and Brian Wallace, both supported casinos in 2008, respectively.

“The jobs piece is what sold me,” Collins said.

The bill will also help keep funds spent on gambling within the state, he said, recalling when he ran into a group of seniors last year on their way to Foxwoods in Connecticut.

Collins, whose district includes Uphams Corner and the Polish Triangle, successfully pushed for an amendment that directs the gambling commission set up by the bill to clarify the jurisdiction of city police and the State Police when dealing with crime occurring in a casino. State Police would be directed to handle white collar crime, under the Collins amendment.

The revenue the state takes in from casinos will go back to cities and towns, according to state Rep. Martin Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat and union leader who has long supported bringing casinos into the Bay State.

There is more momentum behind this bill than in past years when legislation came close (it hit the governor’s desk last year) but never made into law for one reason or another. “I’m optimistic it’s going to happen but you never know with legislation, you never know what could happen that could derail it,” Walsh said. “It’s still pretty early.”

Boston Democrats who voted against the casino bill included Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury), Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain), Byron Rushing (D-Roxbury), Elizabeth Malia (D-Jamaica Plain), Angelo Scaccia (D-Readville), and Martha Walz (D-Back Bay).

State Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat, told her colleagues that for other states that sought to expand gambling, casinos were not a panacea. “Before we leap into this, let’s look at the track record and see what their experience has been. Mr. Speaker, if we look at the experience of other states we will see this is a failed experiment,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at dotnews.com/litdrop.