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Slots Plan Reopens Gambling Debate

On Beacon Hill, the talk has again turned to slot machines and gambling. The issue is renewed by a proposal that Massachusetts Treasurer Tim Cahill will outline this morning to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Cahill wants the state to approve three slot parlors. The move, he estimates, would bring two-to-three billion dollars from licensing fees into state coffers. As well, Cahill says, it would generate $250 million each year in tax revenues.

WBUR's Steve Brown reports on reaction to the proposal.

BROWN: It was just a year ago this month, that the house rejected a proposal by Governor Deval Patrick, to allow the licensing of three, resort-style casinos in Massachusetts.

A lot has happened since then.

The downturn in the economy has the state now scraping for cash, and taxpayers with less money for entertainment and discretional spending. Two of the state's racetracks face their demise at the end of the year after voters banned dog racing, and the chief gambling foe at the statehouse, former Speaker Sal DiMasi, resigned.

DiMasi's successor as speaker, Robert DeLeo, has been a long-time supporter of slot machines at racetracks, and says the treasurer's proposal is a great start for the discussion.

DeLEO: This will give us a more immediate stream of revenue. I've heard discussion that this could get going in ninety to a hundred and twenty days. Folks could be up and operating and revenue could be coming in the Commonwealth. I think we have the venues now in the racetracks that are ready, willing and able to run, and because of that I see this as something that is more viable.

BROWN: But in the other branch, a more cautious tone. Senator Stanley Rosenberg has been the senate's point man on gaming issues. He says stand alone slots can be problematic.

ROSENBERG: You can certainly get something up and running relatively quickly. I think that some people underestimate the amount of time and effort that needs to be put in to ensure that you have a properly regulated system and situation, because it's easy enough to buy and plug the machines in, but if you do this properly, there's very very significant regulation to help ensure that the customer knows that it's a legitimate operation, honestly run, and properly regulated.

BROWN: Governor Patrick said yesterday he hadn't seen the plan being floated by Treasurer Cahill, but welcomed "his contributions to the discussion."

The governor downplayed the notion the treasurer's proposal would address some of the state's immediate revenue troubles.

PATRICK: We can't make the decisions that we have to make, particularly a decision as profound as expanded gaming based on short term factors alone. This is a long term decision and needs to be taken with care, and I think it will be.

BROWN: Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers foundation called the slots proposal reasonable, in the context of the fact we're facing a fiscal crisis and this is something that could help. But he calls Cahill's revenue projection on the high side, given the global recession.

WIDMER: It's going to be very hard for any private entity or fund to bid two to three billion dollars given the massive economic uncertainties. Consumers are retrenching by the day. These kind of slots are having trouble across the country. Businesses are having trouble. The recession is hitting them in a major way.

BROWN: Casino foes are more critical of the Treasurer's plan. Richard Young of Casino Free Massachusetts says it's easy to see how money would be brought into the state, but the costs are harder to figure.

YOUNG: This can't be a Big Dig scenario which we're told is going to do wonders, but no one wants to put a cost on it, and we need that.

BROWN: While Cahill will present more details of his slots plan this morning to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the debate over slots and casinos is likely to last for a while.

For WBUR, I'm Steve Brown at the Statehouse.

This program aired on March 4, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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