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Despite Some Opposition, Mass. House Passes Gambling Bill

THE STATE HOUSE — Massachusetts is one step closer to having casino gambling. The Massachusetts House of Representatives Wednesday night approved the bill that allows three full-fledged casinos and a single slot parlor to be built. Supporters say the gambling venues will create jobs and much needed revenue. Opponents say the social costs far outweigh the benefits.

It seemed as if casino fatigue had permeated the halls of the State House. For the third time in five years, and for the second year in a row, lawmakers debated the prospects of expanded casino gambling in Massachusetts. But unlike previous years, a sense of inevitability surrounded the debate.

“The citizens of this commonwealth support expanded gaming,” said Chicopee Rep. Joe Wagner, who is the House chairman of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee and kicked off the debate.

Supporters say the gambling venues will create jobs and much needed revenue. Opponents say the social costs far outweigh the benefits.

Wagner argued to his colleagues that in terms of economic policy, expanded gambling is just one part of a larger picture.

“It’s an opportunity, for us as a commonwealth, to bring on line a sector of industry that doesn’t exist at present, here in Massachusetts. And that would add the jobs and revenues that are so sorely needed for this commonwealth now and going forward,” he said.

Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues, claims Wagner. Jobs and money sorely needed during this economic downturn.

The bill calls for three resort-style casinos in three regions around the state. Developers would pay a minimum $85 million license fee and would have to invest at least $500 million in gaming. Those casinos would also have to pay 25 percent of their casino revenues to the state. The slots parlor license would give the state a $25 million license fee and pay the state 40 percent of their handle.

But not all lawmakers are sold on the merits of casinos.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” said Newton Democratic Rep. Ruth Balser.

“Some say it’s a form of entertainment. A legitimate business to grow our economy. I reject that. It is a predatory business, exploiting the hopes and dreams of vulnerable people, profiting by developing addiction, and debt,” she said.

House members spent several hours slogging through 154 amendments. Most were rejected, and several that passed were technical in nature. The House did accept an amendment calling on the state’s new gaming commission to draw up legislation that would license Internet poker operations.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who has long been a supporter of expanded gambling, was pleased with the overwhelming vote, saying casinos are just one facet of job creation in Massachusetts.

“And what’s particularly appealing to me about this particular legislation again, is the blue collar jobs which this provides. I don’t mean to imply at all that folks are going to say that this is going to be the end of unemployment here in the commonwealth, but I think that this is a major step in that direction,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate, which is expected to begin its debate on the measure at the end of the month. Gov. Deval Patrick, who helped craft the bill over the summer, is expected to sign it.

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