Massachusetts ready to gamble on casinos

September 22, 2011, Chris  

It looks like the Massachusetts Legislature is going to approve the construction of casinos in the state. At the end of August, Gov. Deval Patrick worked with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray to draft a proposal for approval by lawmakers. This was the state’s third attempt in three years to put together a casino gambling bill that would pass muster, but there’s nothing like unrelenting budget gaps to motivate legislators hung up on moral qualms about gambling.

The bill would allow three resort casinos and one slots parlor to be constructed. Three areas are designated for casino locations in the northeast, central/western and southeast regions.

Since Patrick, DeLeo and Murray cooperated on the bill, it was considered a done deal even before it went to the Legislature in September. The bill stipulates that 25 percent of the casino revenue and 40 percent from the slots parlor will go to the state’s coffers. That money will be used to compensate for the state’s revenue gaps, and will be earmarked for specific purposes, such as promoting tourism, job training and schools.

Five percent of the gambling revenues should allay moral qualms by going to programs that fight compulsive gambling. In addition, 9 percent of the slots parlor revenue would be allocated to support and promote live horse racing.

That last bit implies some insider wheeling and dealing, since Suffolk Downs — the only live thoroughbred-racing venue in New England — is in DeLeo’s district and the racetrack is a main contender for eventual licensing. Critics of the bill object to the behind-closed-doors nature of the bill’s creation.

Competition for the licenses is intense. Lobbyists from Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands Corp., Penn National Gaming and others have spent an estimated $1.8 million during the first half of the year to promote their interests. The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe has long lobbied to build a casino in the southeast and has been given a fast track to approval over other bidders. Seeing the writing on the wall for their Connecticut casino, Mohegan Sun is competing for a license to build in Palmer, Mass.

Besides who will get the licenses, the big question is whether there are enough New England gamblers to support new casinos. Moody’s Investors Service issued a report at the end of August predicting a bad beat for Connecticut when Massachusetts casinos open their doors.

It’s estimated Massachusetts residents spend $700 million each year at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. New Hampshire and Maine residents, who spend about $100 million at Connecticut casinos, will most likely choose the shorter drive to Massachusetts given that option. Massachusetts casinos also will draw customers from New Hampshire’s charitable gaming rooms. There’s only so much gambling money to go around, and no one knows who will win the jackpot when Massachusetts gets in the game.

— Kay Fitzpatrick is Ante Up’s Northeast Ambassador. She’s a freelance journalist who recently wrote a series of strategy blogs for Everest Poker and is an avid player at New England’s poker rooms. Email her at kayfitzpat@yahoo.com.