Gambling bill on fast track in House; too fast, some say

Five minutes. That’s how long, one lawmaker said jokingly, it will take for House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s expanded gambling bill to go from passage in the House to the Senate and then hit the governor’s desk.

The joke has a ring of truth: the bill is moving quickly through the legislative process. This week it cleared two committees and was well on its way to being debated on the House floor by April 13.

The proposal allows for the creation of two resort-style casinos and up to 750 slot machines at the state’s two horse racing tracks and two former dog racing tracks. It also creates a five-member Gaming Commission to license and regulate gambling. Some funds would be directed to gambling addiction programs.

Opponents of the bill say it’s moving too quickly and is need of an extensive public review. They also say bringing expanded gambling to Massachusetts will also carry heavy social costs and up the number of problem gamblers within the state.

“In my opinion, there are some social ills. Some people in my committee suggested that it was immoral [to support gambling], when in fact I look at it another way,” said state Sen. Jack Hart, referring to when he was on the Senate side of the Economic Development Committee, which considered a proposal to bring three casinos to the state in 2008. The House, controlled then by Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, overwhelmingly defeated the proposal.

“There’s a downside to anything that you do,” Hart, a South Boston Democrat, said. “But I think it’s in fact moral for people that are public policymakers to try to give people an opportunity to work. It is in fact moral to give people a chance to pay their bills, pay their mortgage, get their children to a decent school. All the positives outweigh the downside.”

In short, it’s a blue-collar jobs bill, supporters say, that will also bring in millions in cash to local cities and towns. The roster includes state Rep. Marty Walsh (D-Savin Hill), who filed a gambling bill, parts of which were thrown into DeLeo’s bill, with state Rep. Brian Wallace (D-South Boston) last year. “I’m pretty optimistic it’s going to pass the House,” Walsh said.

House lawmakers voted 108 to 44 in March 2008 to kill Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal for three resort casinos. This year, Patrick has left the issue up to lawmakers.

Members of the Dorchester delegation who voted to kill Patrick’s bill included state Reps. Marie St. Fleur (D-Uphams Corner), Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Lower Mills); State Rep. Elizabeth Malia (D-Jamaica Plain). Voting for the bill were Walsh, Wallace, and state Rep. Willie Mae Allen (D-Mattapan).

Malia has said she plans to vote against expanded gambling, while St. Fleur last year expressed reluctance to vote for gambling. Allen did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

Forry said she needed to further review DeLeo’s bill to see if small businesses are affected from a casino operating in their immediate area. She noted that she had opposed Patrick’s proposal because she felt the state could not handle three casinos. “A lot of people are leaving the state and going to Connecticut,” she said, raising a point frequently made by casino gambling proponents. “I think it’s important to capture that market.”
Over in the Senate, Dorchester’s two representatives are split. State Sen. Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain) has called casinos a “regressive” way to get revenue into state coffers.

Hart said he supports casinos, but is lukewarm on the slots aspect, as is Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth). “I think there’s an opportunity for Speaker DeLeo to save a thousand jobs or so,” Hart said, referring to the two tracks that the speaker has in his district. “But I’m not as close to it as he is. I would be a firm supporter of the resort-style casinos.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.