Massachusetts is moving incrementally toward expanded gambling.
The House approved a bill Tuesday extending simulcasting at the state's two dog racing tracks until July 31. It had been slated to end Dec. 31. The measure was sent to the Senate.
The Wonderland Greyhound Park has already ceased live racing after voters approved an anti-dog racing ballot question last year. The Raynham Park track is supposed to follow suit Jan. 1, the deadline set by the ballot question.
If the Senate also approves the simulcasting bill, both sites would essentially be converted into off-track betting parlors for the first half of next year. They would exist only to allow bets on races being broadcast from elsewhere in the country.
Previously, simulcasting had been limited to the four sites in the state that also offered live racing. The state's other two tracks, Suffolk Downs and the Plainridge Racecourse, feature horse racing.
Advocates say allowing extended simulcasting will prevent job losses and protect the tracks while the state considers allowing slot machines at them. The machines are expected to be considered after New Year's, when the Legislature considers a broader bill allowing casino gambling in Massachusetts.
"The only thing that can allow my track to exist in the long run is slot machines because the dogs are no longer," said Rep. David Flynn, a Democrat whose district includes Raynham Park.
Of the simulcasting extension, he said: "It gives all of us a chance to get our ducks in order while we consider whether to do a combination of slot machines and casinos, and where and when to place them."
He said he expects another extension from July 31 because the state will need time to enact rules and regulations for any gambling expansion it approves.
Gov. Deval Patrick last year proposed licensing three so-called destination resort casinos in Massachusetts. The bill was defeated by then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who argued that the social cost in terms of increase divorce and personal debt were too high.
But the Boston Democrat resigned in January amid a series of ethics investigations, and his replacement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, represents a district that contains both the Wonderland and Suffolk Downs tracks.
DeLeo has said he is willing to discuss expanded gambling, especially the concept of slot machines at the tracks, while Senate President Therese Murray has labeled expanded gambling "inevitable." Patrick also supports a renewed discussion.
Under a draft of the House simulcasting bill, both Wonderland and Raynham would pay simulcast revenues into a newly established racing stabilization fund. That money would be used to assist Plainridge and Suffolk Downs.
The track owners argue they need the assistance to cover the higher cost of live racing, especially if their competitors gain an advantage by limiting themselves to simulcasting.
Rep. Alice Wolf, D-Cambridge, voted against casino gambling last year, but she conceded the ongoing recession _ and the budget cuts forced by falling tax collections _ cast a fresh perspective on the debate.
"Do I want people not to get mental health services? Do I want children to go hungry?" she said. "We are in a very tough economic time, and the question is, where is the balance? Is this a way to provide some of the things we're not funding now?"
Wolf added: "My point of view hasn't really changed, but I feel we should at least be opening to listening."