Local

Governor, legislative leadership announce casino bill

byChristine M. WilliamsSpecial to The Pilot
9/2/2011

BOSTON -- Last year, Gov. Deval Patrick and state House Speaker Robert DeLeo reached an impasse that prevented expanded gaming from coming to the commonwealth. On Aug. 23, the pair, alongside state Senate President Therese Murray, unveiled a bill that proposes three casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts.

In 2010, the House and Senate passed a casino bill that died on the governor's desk. The measure would have instituted three casinos and two slot parlors at racetracks. Gov. Patrick, who has often spoken out against stand-alone slots, said he would only approve one such parlor and would require an open bidding process -- both of which have been incorporated in the 2011 bill.

James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), said the state's Catholic bishops have always been "adamantly opposed to expanded gaming." Any upside of such gambling is outweighed by its social costs, he said.

Opponents of Class 3 gaming continue to call for an independent cost-benefits analysis, but a bill requiring such a study has received little attention. SB150, filed by Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) on Jan. 19, asks for a qualified research institution to look into all outcomes for the state and individual communities.

The only study, produced by the gaming industry in 2008, expects that the state's current economic woes will be in the past by the time casinos arrive. It does not factor in the consequences of other bordering states like New York and New Hampshire legalizing casinos. It also does not consider the social costs of excessive gambling. Critics say that these oversights lead the study to greatly overestimate revenue and job creation.

According to statistics provided by the American Gaming Association, revenue at commercial casinos in the country has increased by more than 30 percent over the last 10 years. During the same time period, casinos opened for the first time in two states and racetrack slot parlors started business in three states.

Casino revenue first dropped in 2008 and again in 2009.There was a less than one percent gain in 2010 when casinos brought in $34.6 billion. But most of that money goes to the casino owners, not state coffers. About 22 percent, $7.59 billion, became public funds.

In Massachusetts, the leadership's casino bill proposes that 25 percent of revenues would go to the commonwealth. The projected amount of $400 million predicts that there will be $1.6 billion in total revenues. Critics say that even considering a sizable recapture of funds spent by Massachusetts gamblers in out-of-state casinos, residents would still need to gamble and lose more than $1 billion. That amount is neither realistic nor prudent, they say.

"Casinos represent the most predatory business in America today because they are based on pushing people into deeper debt," Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, said. "Government needs to get out of the predatory gambling business."

Bernal went on to say that states should be encouraging their citizens to save money and get out of debt, not to rack up credit card debt on slot machines. While the national anti-gaming organization is based in Washington D.C., Bernal works out of its Lawrence office.

The website for United to Stop the Slots in Massachusetts (USS Mass) says casinos and slots prey on the addicted, gaining the highest profits from the few who visit frequently and lose the most money. Somewhere between 70-90 percent of casinos' profits come from 10 percent of gamblers. Studies have shown that five years after a casino opens, the neighborhood sees an increase in robberies by 136 percent, aggravated assaults by 91 percent, auto theft by 78 percent, burglary 50 percent, larceny 38 percent and rape 21 percent. They have also shown that within a 50-mile radius, addiction to gambling doubles.

In Massachusetts, the new bill would establish three casinos in three different regions, putting nearly all of the state within 50 miles of a casino.

USS Mass president of the board Tom Larkin said a full-throated debate of the issues is necessary considering the irreversible consequences that will have long-term negative effects. The governor, along with the Senate and House leaders, has acted as if expanded gaming is a "done deal." All three have concerned themselves with how to implement Class 3 gaming, not whether or not they should.

Larkin said he is sure that the bill will sound very reasonable and include constraints to try to minimize the negative impacts. But he warned that such laws could be changed.

Government becomes addicted to gambling revenue, and the casinos become powerful lobbyists. In other states, restrictions on expanded gaming have been thrown out the window within years after the casinos are up and running, he said.

"There's no right way to exploit people, and there's no right way to collaborate with a predatory industry," he added.

Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said casinos are a losing proposition. They are destructive to families and a regressive tax on the poor. He said he hopes legislators will realize that and vote the measure down.

"I just hope that greed and confusion will settle," he said.

Mineau added that the casino bill's supporters, who crafted the legislation behind closed doors, want to push it through to a vote on the House floor as early as this month. Concerned citizens should act now, he said.

He and others urged voters to call the governor and their elected representatives.

Bernal of Stop Predatory Gambling said, "We live in a country where everyone is a part owner in our democracy. What we own is broken, and it's up to each and every one of us to fix it."