By: State Senator Steve Baddour – October, 2011
The talk of Beacon Hill these past weeks has been casinos, casinos, casinos. Last month, the House of Representatives introduced a new version of last year’s failed bid to bring casino gaming to the Commonwealth. And now, the bill is before the Senate – ready to be amended and I predict, ultimately passed.
As with any significant policy change that the Legislature considers, there are inherent benefits and detriments, and I recognize and understand that there are strong feelings amongst both opponents and proponents of casino gambling. However, we cannot legislate the right of any person to make their own choices. There are people gambling in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas right now. Many of those people are Massachusetts residents, and they want to be able to gamble closer to home.
Currently, Massachusetts residents spend over $1 billion per year in resort casinos and gaming facilities outside of the Commonwealth. New Hampshire is again considering expanded gambling, including a potential casino site along the North Shore/Merrimack Valley Area, and Rhode Island recently began considering an expansion of their existing slot facilities to include table games. Establishing expanded gaming in Massachusetts will allow us to keep money that is spent in casinos right here at home. The gaming bills also have requirements that casinos in Massachusetts must develop marketing plans towards out-of-state residents to help mitigate the flow of money to outside casinos.
It is estimated that the passage of these bills will create over 6,000 immediate jobs associated with the construction of resort-style casinos, and would create about 9,000 permanent positions associated with the operation of the gaming facilities. In these tough economic times, where unemployment rates remain near 10% on the state and national levels, the addition of over 15,000 jobs will help put people – especially construction workers, electricians and other blue collar workers – back to work now.
This year’s expanded gaming bill would allow three resort-style casinos in three different regions of the Commonwealth as well as one slot machine parlor. Each casino license would be competitively bid, with a starting fee of $85 million; the slot parlor license would be competitively bid starting at $25 million, generating at least $280 million in immediate revenues for the Commonwealth. In addition, the casinos would be required to pay a 25% tax on all gaming revenues, estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
We all know that over the past decade, tax revenues in the Commonwealth have plummeted as a result of the global economic climate. As tax revenues fall, the amount of local aid the state is able to dedicate to each city and town for schools and other essential services also suffers. Local aid levels have still not recovered to pre-recession levels, but the passage of expanded gaming would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue, a large portion of which will be dedicated to every city and town in the Commonwealth, to alleviate the pressures of decreased local aid and tax revenues.
There are also several measures built into the bills to mitigate the costs of casinos. While the bills create a new Division of Gaming under the Attorney General’s Office and an independent Gaming Commission, casinos will be required to pay an annual slot machine fee to pay for the costs associated with these departments. The Attorney General’s Division of Gaming and the Gaming Commission, as well as a new gaming investigative department under the State Police, will create one of strongest gaming regulatory authorities in the nation.
In addition, casinos will be required to negotiate “impact agreements” with host communities, and the community will have the opportunity to approve the presence of a casino. These agreements will establish a sum of money to be paid by the casinos in order to pay for costs host communities will expend due to the casino. Also, funds must be paid by each licensed casino to pay for programs related to problem gambling and addiction; currently $25 million is going to be set aside to fund programs associated with addiction services.
I understand and appreciate the concerns expressed by opponents of expanded gambling. Casinos can cause harm to the host-communities and surrounding areas but the requirements in the bill that any casino developer obtain the approval of the host municipality and sign an impact agreement to pay for any such harms will, I believe, alleviate the financial impact on these communities. In addition, the requirement that casinos and the one licensed slot parlor contribute a significant portion of the revenues to gambling addiction programs provides an ideal opportunity to fully invest in the kinds of programs that will identify and treat these issues early on.
During initial debate, I have supported a series of measures and amendments to the Senate bill that will increase transparency and ethical standards related to expanded gaming. The license application process will be entirely transparent and all applications will be public record, viewable by any member of the public. Also, I voted for an amendment that would prohibit legislators from taking a job with a casino for at least a year after leaving public service, and people with an interest in casinos would be limited to donating no more than $200 per year to candidates, the same limit we place on lobbyists.
Lastly, I supported an amendment to require that the proposed host-community vote to approve a casino to take place during a general election, to increase voter turnout, and an amendment that bans campaign contributions to any local official who has direct oversight of casino negotiations. It is my strong belief that these changes will help reduce conflicts of interest and back-room deals.
I understand that not everyone will agree with me on the issue of allowing expanded gaming in our state. I do, however, believe my vote to support this effort will in the long term prove to be one that put our state on a new road to jump starting our economic recovery.