Casino foes push for new study of costs, benefits

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 5:42 PM

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is pressing lawmakers to request a new, independent analysis of the costs and benefits of expanded gaming even as lawmakers hammer out the details of a casino bill that could be debated as early as next month.

Patrick made his comments when asked Thursday about an hour-long meeting he had this week inside his office with casino opponents, who are pushing for the new study.

"I think the points that were made when we met about refreshing the analysis of both the economic cost benefit and also the human impact are very well taken," Patrick told reporters. "I have commended that idea forward to the Speaker and the Senate President."

Patrick's comments come as gambling foes are upping the ante in their bid to block casinos in Massachusetts _ enlisting the aid of former Gov. Michael Dukakis and former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

Both were slated to talk at an anti-gaming forum at Faneuil Hall moderated by City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, the former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate.

Kathleen Conley Norbut, president of United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts said the state deserves more detailed information before dramatically expanding gambling.

"We think that all people in the spectrum should have some sound data around this to make decisions and that has not been done," she said. "It's a new world. It's a new economy."

Harshbarger said expanded gambling is not a fiscal panacea and is far outweighed by social costs, including increased gambling addiction and crime.

Harshbarger also said he was concerned about a rush to push through casino legislation in the midst of an economic crisis.

"There is simply no economic or public policy justification," he said. "I believe that the more people talk about it, the more information they have, the less likely it is that people will go this route."

Casino supporters say the issues have been studied enough.

They say they realize that casinos won't solve the state's fiscal troubles. But they say it will help stop the flow of gambling dollars out of the state while also providing new jobs for those out of work.

Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein, D-Revere, whose district includes the Wonderland Greyhound Park, said those jobs are desperately needed in her hometown.

"You can do a cost-benefit analysis every day in Revere at the Northgate Mall when you see the buses leaving for Connecticut," which has casino gambling, Reinstein said. "We could waste time and money doing another (study) or put something in place that would put people to work and have revenue coming in immediately."

The renewed interest in gaming hasn't gone unnoticed, with pro-gambling groups ramping up their lobbying efforts in Massachusetts.

In 2005, companies and groups pushing legalized gambling spent $764,500 on lobbyists to press their message on Beacon Hill. During the first six months of 2009, those same interests surpassed that total, pouring $777,983 into lobbying.

Casino foes say they know they are being outspent on Beacon Hill, but still hope to win over enough lawmakers to block any casino legislation with an aggressive grassroots push.

One of the biggest questions is how much sentiment toward casinos has changed among lawmakers.

The last vote on casinos was in March 2008, when the House voted 106-48 to send a casino licensing bill to a study committee, effectively killing it for the session. That vote came when former Democratic House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi _ a casino opponent _ was still in office.

Current House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop and Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, have both said they support casino gambling.

Patrick said that while he has recommended a fresh analysis, he's taking a hands-off approach to the issue as lawmakers try to hash out a final deal.

"Let's be candid, the ball's in their court," Patrick said. "I've already expressed myself, and the Legislature is working now on their own approach."