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Mass. Senate Balks At GOP Tax Plan In Casino Bill

The Massachusetts Senate rejected a Republican-backed plan Tuesday that would have dumped all future casino revenues into a tax relief fund for private and commercial property owners statewide.

Republicans said they were trying to pressure Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to live up to a campaign pledge to help provide property tax relief, but Democratic leaders in the Senate accused GOP lawmakers of playing election-year politics in the midst of the casino debate.

"This is a campaign year. This is all strategy for campaigns," Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, told news reporters. "It's all about embarrassing the governor because he came into office saying property tax relief but we also hit a worldwide recession."

Republicans said they were just trying to funnel money from the casinos back to cash-strapped property owners instead of putting it into state coffers. Ultimately, the GOP plan was pushed aside in favor of a Democrat-supported measure that would apply some casino money to property tax relief for elderly residents.

The Massachusetts House already has approved a plan to create two casinos and allow 750 slot machines at each of the state's four racetracks.

The Senate plan would create three casinos but ban racetrack slots. It also would stipulate that 30 percent of casino revenues goes to cities and towns as local aid, 30 percent goes to pay down state debt and 30 percent will be used for economic development. The remaining 10 percent would go to programs to combat gambling addiction, law enforcement and to set up the regulatory infrastructure to monitor the casinos.

Debate ended abruptly again Tuesday after smoking opponents said they feared language allowing smoking could be slipped into the bill.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said that even though both the House and Senate bills would make the casinos smoke-free, the language in each is slightly different. That could give a House and Senate conference committee the ability to allow smoking in the final bill, he said.

Senate debate on the legislation has plodded along because of delays stemming from opposition to a provision that would allow smoking in certain parts of the casinos. The governor supports, and the Senate ultimately approved, a smoking ban. Other delays stemmed from opposition to the practice of offering free drinks to gamblers.

"It isn't easy. It isn't simple. And there's differences in our substantive choices that have to be worked out. And the opposition is well organized. I think that's got to be acknowledged," Patrick said.

In debate Tuesday, Republican Senate leader Richard Tisei, who is also the running mate of GOP candidate for governor Charles Baker, said the Senate has the chance to do what Patrick failed to do after more than three years in office.

During his 2006 campaign for governor, Patrick criticized what he called the prior Republican administration's "fiscal shell game" that made it difficult to offer tax relief for property owners.

"Once he was in office, we saw no property tax cut," said Tisei, R-Wakefield. "The promise wasn't kept at all."

But Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos said the 30 percent for local aid is essentially property tax relief.

"That means they don't have to raise that (money) through the property taxes," said Panagiotakos, D-Lowell. "That helps keep property taxes down."

Tisei criticized Democrats for effectively blocking a vote on the Republican-backed property tax amendment by offering a proposal to set aside 1 percent of anticipated casino revenues — about $3 million to $4 million a year — into a relief fund for senior property owners.

Senators voted along party lines to substitute the senior property tax proposal for the GOP plan, and the full Senate then voted unanimously to adopt the senior property relief plan.

During the debate, Sen. Robert O'Leary said the Senate should reconsider setting aside one license for a Native American tribe — a provision that was in an earlier version of the bill.

The Barnstable Democrat said it's likely the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe will ultimately get land to build a casino on its own, so the state would be wise to work with it now.

Earlier Tuesday, Patrick urged lawmakers to pass a casino gambling bill consistent with the character of Massachusetts, including a proposal to prohibit smoking.

Although he supports legislation to create what he's called resort-style "destination casinos," Patrick has withheld comment on the particulars of the Senate bill.

"What I've said is, if we do this, we should do it in a way that's consistent with the character of the commonwealth and some choices that we have made about that character," he said.

This program aired on June 29, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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