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Mass. bishops statement opposes slot machines

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BOSTON —Calling the possibility of introducing slot machines into Massachusetts racetracks a “current and critical issue,”the bishops of the dioceses of Massachusetts have issued a joint statement opposing the proposed expansion of gambling in the Commonwealth.

“The church sees gambling as something neutral, a legitimate recreational activity when done in moderation. However, we also see that in gambling ... there are increased dangers and abuses that warrant vigilance and concern,”the statement read.

The statement comes after the state Senate voted 26-9 in favor of legislation that would allow for state-owned slot machines to be used in each of the four racetracks in the Commonwealth.

According to Edward Saunders, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, lawmakers amended a bill that would extend the existing simulcasting laws, which were set to expire in December of this year. The addition included a provision allowing for additional gambling, such as slot machines, in the racetracks.

Saunders pointed out that there are currently several bills being considered, although the one garnering the most support would place 2,000 machines in each of the four racetracks —Suffolk Downs in Boston, Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, and Raynham-Taunton track in Raynham.

Proponents of gaming expansion, such as Sen. Michael D. Morrissey, D-Quincy, claim that the slot machines would bring in additional revenue to the state, which would retain 60 percent of the revenue generated by the machines.

But opponents of the measure, such as Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover, argue that lawmakers should not rely on gambling to help solve the fiscal problems of the state, a position echoed in the bishops’statement.

“We appreciate why the state is considering additional revenue from gambling to fund various programs,”the bishops’statement read. “However, casinos and the authorization for additional slot machines will raise gambling to a new level in our Commonwealth. In addition, these can also encourage addictive gambling.”

The statement continued, “the state should not depend on gambling for resources to pay for needed services. We urge our state legislators to vote against these proposals.”

Now that the state senate has voted to expand gambling in the racetracks to include slot machines, the House of Representatives must take up the measure.

On Oct. 18, members of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies heard testimony from several racetrack workers, as well as other proponents of installing slot machines at racetracks.

According to committee chairperson Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, the testimony came almost entirely from supporters of expanded gambling largely because “racetrack workers have been told they will lose their jobs”unless slot machines are added to the ailing racetracks.

But Bosley, an outspoken opponent of expanded gambling in the Bay State, is convinced that adding slot machines in racetracks is not a good idea.

“It doesn’t make sense economically,”he said in a telephone interview, “but more importantly there is an incredible social cost”to expanding gambling. Bosley pointed out that in states where there is a high rate of legalized gambling, low-income residents have an increased risk of becoming addicts.

“For a lot of people, slot machines and casino gambling is a recreational activity,”Bosley said, “but many low-income people view gambling as an investment and it’s a bad investment.”

No date has been set for the House to vote on any of the bills that would expand legalized gambling, and Bosley does not expect the vote to come in the near future.

“My responsibility as Committee Chairperson is to review the issue thoroughly every time it comes before the committee and I intend to do that in the best way I can,”he asserted.

Even if the bill is passed by the House, Gov. Mitt Romney will likely veto the bill. In a Sept. 19 statement, Romney indicated he would not sign any new gaming bill into law.

“I am not proposing, or even considering, an expansion of gaming,”he stated. “If someone were to bring forward a proposal, it is not something I would support given the economic circumstances and the social costs associated with gaming.”

Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley has addressed the social costs of casino-like gambling when proposals for expanded gaming in Massachusetts have been raised in the past.

In a 2001 opinion piece published in the Standard-Times newspaper of New Bedford, Archbishop O’Malley, then Bishop Fall River, said, “We believe that gambling can be a legitimate recreation, but like drinking, gambling needs to be monitored and regulated. Although parish Bingo has provided helpful revenues to our Catholic Schools, and in most cases is a legitimate form of recreation and socialization, I would rather have all gambling outlawed rather than see casino gambling come into our community.”

“There is no doubt that gambling victimizes the poor,”he continued, citing a survey which shows that the largest percentage of gambling addicts are low-income people, “people who turn to gambling as an escape from the throes of poverty.”

“Our heightened awareness of the scourge of compulsive gambling demands that we scrutinize the new proposals,”the archbishop declared.

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