Casino pros and cons scrutinized as legislative debate nears

Outside interests on both sides of the expanded gambling question worked to put rhetorical and statistical stakes down last week as Beacon Hill prepares for its next high-profile fight on the issue, with changed political and economic dynamics coloring both arguments.

Supporters of gambling proposals underscored support for adequate funds to prevent and treat individuals with problem gambling habits, in a set of policy recommendations issued by industry leaders Tuesday. At a dueling forum less than an hour later, opponents of expanded gambling called casinos and slot machines a poorly timed “backdoor tax” that would disproportionately harm low-income residents while falling far short of the revenues promised by proponents, arguing that the social costs would outweigh any benefits.

Issue Has Much Breadth

The accelerated activity, with formal debate likely to begin next month or in April, signals the issue’s ability to consume much of the Beacon Hill agenda, and reach into seemingly far corners of state government.

“We’re neglecting our working-class people, because we’ve done a lot of good work to bring in businesses and we’re bringing in great industry, but we’re ignoring the people who pay the taxes and pay for the services, and a lot of these people are the ones who don’t have jobs right now,” said Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein, a Revere Democrat who supports gambling. “People talk about this more than they talk about the other stuff because it’s something they can get their hands around,” Reinstein added.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who backs racetrack slot parlors and casinos, plans to file a gambling bill next month, and expanded gambling has support from both Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray.

DeLeo is leading the push within the Legislature to authorize landmark gambling expansions, which would entail reversing last session’s House vote against casinos and countering opponents who say expanded gambling will draw money from existing businesses, rather than building the economy, and lead to more problems like bankruptcies, crime and corruption.

A source close to the Massachusetts Partnership for Responsible Gambling, a coalition of industry, state lottery, and compulsive gambling council officials, estimated the cost of implementing the group’s policy recommendations at between $20 million and $30 million, funds the industry says could be dedicated from a significantly larger infusion of new revenues they anticipate with the advent of casinos and potentially racetrack slot machines.

Anti-gambling Statistics Aired
At a State House forum, gambling foes released a raft of statistics they said should swing the debate against new gambling: 21 percent of Americans believe the best way to obtain long-term financial security is through state-sponsored gambling; 90 percent of casino gambling profits flow from 10 percent of gamblers; 43 percent of people who use electronic gambling machines once a month or more exhibit “problem gambling behavior.”

Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, put the issue in dramatic terms: “It’s not a debate about gambling. It’s a debate about who we are as a people.”

Disputing claims that the state would net new revenue and jobs, United to Stop Slots Massachusetts (USS-Mass.), said new gaming venues would actually send funds out-of-state rather than to local coffers.

In a report released Tuesday morning, the group said that reaping $200 million in new tax revenue would require 40,000 new gamblers every day, and that to match current Lottery revenues, citizens would need to gamble and lose 11 times more money.

Instead of funding cities and towns, new gambling ventures generate money for out-of-state developers and the Lottery would lose more than 10 percent of its revenue, USS-Mass said.

The Partnership for Responsible Gambling recommended the state establish “responsible gambling” policies, practices and regulations; development of a gambling oversight authority and regulatory structure; and a requirement that gambling operators have plans to ensure compliance with responsible gambling “best practices” programs.

The partnership includes top officials from the State Lottery Commission, the Mass. Council on Compulsive Gambling, Mohegan Sun, and the state’s four racetracks.

Identifying Problem Gamblers

Jeff Hartmann, the Mohegan Sun COO, said problem gamblers were often difficult to identify, but said some signs include unusually visible frustration with losing, cursing, yelling, or throwing a drink. Hartmann called gambling addiction part of “a family of addictions,” including tobacco, drug, alcohol, and sex. Problem gambling usually flies below the radar for most people,” he said. “The other addictions are quite obvious.”

A 108-44 House vote in 2008 shot down Patrick’s casino proposal, but House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s departure is viewed as a heavy shift in a Beacon Hill climate where legislative leaders exercise outsize control over the public policy agenda.

If a 10 percent decline in net Lottery revenue projected by casino opponents occurred, municipalities would see a loss in state aid of up to $100 million, the state’s Lottery director said after the partnership’s forum.

Mark Cavanagh said he has seen a range of projected net losses and called a 10 percent figure “drastic.” After a forum convened by top gambling interests either already in Massachusetts or looking to invest here, Cavanagh said, “I think we acknowledge that there will be a deterrent effect to our sales. And the concern is, from a macro perspective, that if our sales go down, money to cities and towns will go down.”