Let's get serious

Gambling is front and center on Beacon Hill
By EDITORIAL  |  April 16, 2010

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The odds are that casino gambling is coming to Massachusetts. The state’s big three — Governor Deval Patrick, State Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo — are all in favor.

The question is, will “racinos” — slot machines at the state’s four dog- and horse-racing tracks — follow? DeLeo is pushing for them, which is not surprising; two of the tracks are in his district.

The Phoenix has no philosophical objection to gambling. And even if we did, it would be hard to maintain it with a straight face given the existence, and success, of the state-run lottery. In our view, gambling should be viewed strictly as an economic-development issue.

By that measure, we’ve long held that casinos make sense — especially as part of a larger strategy that seeks to maximize tourism’s already huge positive impact on the commonwealth.

Given the perilous state of the economy and the high rate of joblessness, the construction of two casinos, together with the necessary infrastructure improvements they would require, should give Massachusetts a much-needed shot in the arm.

The case for racinos, however, is more dubious. On a local level, casinos tend to tap patrons’ entertainment and travel dollars, while racinos — which are really glorified slot parlors — tend to take meal and medicine money.

If state lawmakers and the governor decide that they must accept a limited number of slot machines at racetracks as a compromise, they should drive a hard bargain with DeLeo.

For one, the awarding and overseeing of gaming licenses should be fully open and transparent. That includes the licenses for the four slots-only venues. There is no inherent reason those licenses should go to the four racetracks — especially the two dog tracks, whose live racing has been legally banned. Slots for the dog tracks are corporate welfare, pure and simple.

DeLeo blocked an amendment for an open bidding process for those slot licenses, which suggests that he is more interested in what benefits his district (and his contributors) than what is best for the state. DeLeo’s predecessor wounded Massachusetts with his flat-out refusal to consider casinos. Let’s hope DeLeo does not repeat the disservice by pursuing narrow political self-interests.

The gaming bill should also mitigate any potential harm the casinos will do to existing arts and culture venues, which will be in competition for discretionary entertainments dollars.

DeLeo’s plan calls for a $3 million one-time payment to the Massachusetts Tourism Fund, and for one percent of state gaming revenue to be devoted to the fund thereafter. Representative Mark Falzone doesn’t think that’s adequate. He wants to give $15 million to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and three percent of ongoing gaming revenues to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Falzone has the right idea.

Representative Brian Dempsey, chief author of the bill, has another excellent idea: ask applicants for a casino license to provide a plan for working with the local arts community — just as they will need to show plans for parking, environmental impact, and other concerns.

Finally, the bill should include sterner requirements for smart growth and energy efficiency. DeLeo has merely asked developers to consider certain goals. This is a giveaway that should not be tolerated. An amendment filed by Representative Katherine Clark would require the use of renewable sources for 10 percent of the casinos’ energy, and meeting of other targets for mitigating automobile pollution and water use.

All of this should be in addition, of course, to measures that DeLeo has included in his bill, such as assurances that sufficient resources go to treatment of gambling addiction. If DeLeo is going to sour the gaming bill with racinos, he should be made to substantially sweeten the entire package. Bargain hard.

  Topics: The Editorial Page , Deval Patrick, Deval Patrick, Massachusetts,  More more >
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