3/19/08

AFL-CIO comes up short in labor-state

Gov. Deval Patrick conceded Tuesday his plan to build three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts is heading for likely defeat in the Legislature, blaming "undue pressure from House leadership." But Patrick, in his second year as governor, indicated he isn't giving up on the idea, saying he's still looking for ways to make the bill stronger.

"I have no illusions about the plans in the House for this legislation," he said Tuesday at a packed legislative hearing. "I'm simply asking that an open debate begin, rather than end, today."

The hearing could determine the fate of Patrick's bill for the current legislative session. Patrick says casinos would generate new jobs and revenue. Critics warn the proposal exaggerates the economic benefits and would bring increased crime and even worsen the foreclosure crisis if gambling addicts spend their mortgage payments on slot machines.

If the committee releases the bill with a recommendation that lawmakers reject it, it could come up for a vote as early as Thursday. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has pressed lawmakers to kill the bill, saying casinos would "absolutely cause human damage on a grand scale."

Patrick has said the casinos would create tens of thousands of construction jobs and 20,000 full-time permanent jobs and bring in $200 million in fees per license plus an estimated $400 million a year in new revenues.

"Casinos in Massachusetts will be neither a cure-all for all of our fiscal needs nor an end of civilization as we know it," he said to an overflowing crowd of mostly casino supporters in Gardner Auditorium.

Earlier in the day, DiMasi told a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast he could not support the governor's plan because it would ultimately harm residents.

"We will absolutely and no question have increased bankruptcies, foreclosures, divorce, broken families, increased property crimes, domestic violence and on and on and on," DiMasi said. "The cost of cleaning up the human devastation brought by casino gambling is too great."

DiMasi said he has seen strong public opposition to Patrick's plan, but those voices have not been heard as prominently as advocates.

"After six months of debate on this bill, I believe the evidence is not there, the case has not been made and time is running out," DiMasi said. "Right now, my answer is no."

A long list of supporters and opponents signed up with Joint Committee on Economic Development to testify during the public hearing, which began at 10 a.m. and stretched into the afternoon. They included clergy members, environmentalists, online poker players and dozens of union backers.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Daniel Bosley, one of the fiercest critics of casino gambling, warned that allowing three casinos could open up a Pandora's Box of trouble.

He pointed to the state Lottery -- which began with a single daily number and grew into dozens of scratch tickets, Megabucks, Mega Millions and Keno -- and said the state could quickly become just as addicted to casino money.

"The Lottery should be a cautionary tale," said the North Adams Democrat. "We love the revenues, but we hate how we get them."

Bosley's Senate co-chair, Sen. Jack Hart, D-Boston, also pointed to the Lottery, but said the state needs to weigh the potential ills of casino gambling against the potential windfall.

"We're already in the gambling industry," said Hart, who is leaning toward supporting Patrick's plan. "Do the benefits in the end outweigh the social costs?"

Passing on Patrick's bill may delay, but won't stop casinos in Massachusetts, according to Rep. Thomas Calter, D-Kingston, who represents Middleborough.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is asking the federal government to deem a site in Middleborough as tribal lands so it can use that property for a casino.

"Gaming is coming," Calter said. "The question is who is going to control it."

That was a view shared by Patrick's Secretary of Economic Development Dan O'Connell, who said the tribe will succeed in building a casino, whether the state is involved or not.

The only difference, he said, is that the state won't have the regulations or reap the revenues it would under Patrick's plan. Those safeguards include added law enforcement, some local control and extra money to help treat those addicted to gambling.

"The Mashpee Wampanoags will ultimately be successful," O'Connell said.

Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown warned that the pull of the casinos could end up hurting some of the state's traditional tourist attractions, particularly in her Cape Cod district.

"It will be good for tourism around the resort casinos, but it will be bad for other parts of the state," said Peake, who also owns a bed and breakfast.

Before the hearing, hundreds of casino supporters rallied on the Boston Common to urge lawmakers to support Patrick's plan. Many of the union members at the rally wore hard hats and carried signs saying "Casinos equal 20,000 jobs for Massachusetts and I need one of them."

Robert Haynes, Massachusetts president of the AFL-CIO, urged his members to attend the hearing and push their state lawmakers to back Patrick's proposal.

"I want to know which legislator is going to deny you a job, who's going to pay your mortgage when you can't pay, who's going to leave 20,000 workers in an unemployment line," Haynes said.

(boston.com)

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