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Amid State House shift, odds of casinos in Mass. improving

STEVE LEBLANC

The odds of Massachusetts rolling the dice on expanded gambling — whether slot machines, full-blown casinos, or both — are getting better by the day.

The election of Robert DeLeo as the speaker of the Massachusetts House last week breathed new life into a debate that seemed all but dead just weeks earlier. But that was before former Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, the main foe of casino gambling on Beacon Hill, suddenly resigned under an ethics cloud.

While DeLeo voted with DiMasi last year to kill Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to license three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts, he’s never voiced the same level of opposition as DiMasi, who warned of fostering a “casino culture” in the state.

In 2006, DeLeo broke with DiMasi and voted in favor of a plan to allow 2,000 slot machines at each of the state’s racetracks. DeLeo’s district includes two racetracks — Wonderland Greyhound Park and Suffolk Downs.

DeLeo has said as speaker he won’t limit himself to just considering slots, saying that casinos are also now “in play” under his leadership in the House.

“I’ve always been a proponent relative to maybe slots at racetracks,” DeLeo said in an interview on WBZ-TV broadcast Sunday. “Having said that, I’m very open to a discussion relative to casinos. Whether I embrace it or not, we’ll see, but I’m open to any discussion relative to expanded gambling to bring in additional revenue.”

About a half-dozen gambling-related bills have already been filed in the House for the new session, including one designed to allow the state’s four racetracks to install slot machines and another seeking to revive Patrick’s three-casino plan.

Patrick has been generally circumspect about casino gambling after his plan was squashed in the House last year. Whether he would regain his enthusiasm if the House took a more active interest remains to be seen, although he appeared to enjoy the prospect of a new House leader last week when he met with DeLeo and DeLeo’s defeated rival for the top spot in the House, Majority Leader John Rogers.

“I like slots at the racetracks,” DeLeo told Patrick before a clutch of reporters and television cameras.

“Let the games begin,” Patrick joked.

Those pushing for expanded gambling are no strangers to Beacon Hill — and the debate began well before Patrick unveiled his three-casino plan.

Wonderland owner Charles Sarkis has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to state lawmakers over the past decade, including contributions to DeLeo, DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray, according to state campaign finance records. Managers and executives at Suffolk Downs and the Raynham Greyhound Park have also contributed heavily to lawmakers and Patrick.

The parks have long sought state permission to install slot machines — something they have argued was crucial to their future.

That request takes on even more urgency in the case of Wonderland and Raynham. A ballot question approved by voters in November ends dog racing in Massachusetts at the end of the year.

There have also been vocal critics of expanded gambling in Massachusetts besides DiMasi.

They say casinos feed gambling addictions and are another way of tapping the wallets of people desperate for quick cash. Critics argue that problem could get worse in economic tough times if people turn to slot machines and casinos in a last ditch effort to save themselves from financial ruin.

Those same economic tough times could make casinos even more attractive to state lawmakers facing unappealing options, such as drastic spending cuts or dramatic tax increases, as the fiscal situation worsens.

Patrick has already come under fire for proposing a raft of targeted tax and fee hikes, from boosting the state’s meals tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to hiking fees at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to extending the state’s 5 percent sales tax to include alcohol sold in package stores, candy and sweetened beverages like soda.

New revenues from casinos or slot machines could mitigate some of those, help avoid deeper cuts to local aid to cities and towns, or even bring in extra cash for some of the new proposals Patrick has had to shelve because of plummeting tax revenues.

How much money casinos would generate is up to debate.

A study commissioned by the administration and released last summer — before the extent of the recession was known — said building three casinos in Massachusetts would allow the state to recapture up to $700 million of the $1.1 billion Bay State gamblers already spend in Connecticut and Rhode Island. It also said the plan would create somewhat fewer jobs than Patrick initially predicted.

Massachusetts isn’t alone in considering new gambling revenues. Proposals to allow or expand slots or casinos are under consideration in at least 14 states, at a time when many legislators and governors are faced with the unsavory choice of cutting services and raising taxes.

While gambling revenues have sagged somewhat as a result of the recession, it has generally sustained itself better that other sources of state revenues, including sales taxes, income taxes and volatile capital gains tax revenues.

(Associated Press)