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The man in charge of state run gambling says it is time for at least one casino in Massachusetts. Treasurer Tim Cahill says the state should move quickly to recapture the gambling dollars spent in neighboring states, and not wait to negotiate with either of the state's Indian tribes.
His plan to accept bids on casino licenses is drawing mixed reactions, and is ramping up an unavoidable debate.TEXT OF STORY
MARTHA BEBINGER: Treasurer Cahill says Massachusetts has to find a new source of revenue. Lottery sales are down and the state is losing jobs while spending commitments for the new health care law and biotech research are growing. Cahill says he doesn't want to just sit back and watch the Mashpee Wampanoag push for a casino.
TIM CAHILL: In my estimation it is not a question of if we'll have casinos; it's a question of when. And the real debate should be on how we do, not if we do it.
BEBINGER: Cahill says the state will get the best deal by soliciting bids for a casino license and revenue sharing agreement. A gambling facility run by one of the major developers would, unlike a casino on an Indian reservation, have to pay taxes. But once blackjack, poker and slot machines are legal, the Mashpees and the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah would be free to open their own casinos. House Speaker Sal DiMasi says on balance, Cahill's plan may not make sense.
DIMASI: If we allow gambling before we negotiate with the Indians then they can do anything we do and that means that we don't get anything from the Indian casinos and that doesn't seem to be a very financially sound proposal to me.
BEBINGER: DiMasi says he believes that the majority of house members remain opposed to casino gambling. DiMasi's point person on gambling, Representative Dan Bosley says that's one reason why a casino is not a "fais de complet" for Massachusetts.
BOSLEY: We fall in the trap of saying this is an inevitability, so let's get in front of it and make the best deal we possibly can, but I don't believe it's an inevitability. If people look at this, they'll understand that while some people from Massachusetts do go to Connecticut to game, most of the gamblers that would come to a new casino would be from Massachusetts, and we wouldn't make as much money as people think we would on casinos.
BEBINGER: Leaders of the state's two Indian tribes are pleased to hear Treasurer Cahill come out in support of a casino. But the Mashpee's chairman Glenn Marshall says he hopes to negotiate directly with the state. Marshall argues that a competitive bid in which most of the billions generated by a casino would go to an out-of-state corporation is the wrong approach.
MARSHALL: It's something that you have to look at and I think at the end of the day, we're going to do what's right for the Commonwealth and for its own people here.BEBINGER: While much of the attention about a tribal casino has been focused on the Mashpees, a related but separate tribe, the Wampanoag's of Gay Head Aquinnah, also plans to renew a casino bid.
Both tribes have considered the possibility that they could open casinos now, based on a state law that allows nonprofit groups to run so-called "Las Vegas Nights." Gary Garrison, a spokesman for the federal Office of Indian Affairs says similar laws have been the basis for casinos in other states.
GARRISON: When you look at South Dakota that's how it got started for the tribes there, and of course, when the state saw they couldn't stop it, they decided to open up to class 3 gaming.
BEBINGER: Mashpee and Aquinnah leaders say they would prefer to avoid what would likely be a legal fight.
If casino plans start to gain traction, opposition groups are ready. Ed Saunders, Director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, says Catholic bishops are opposed to any expansion of gambling.
SAUNDERS: It looks good as a quick fix to revenue problems, but gambling usually attracts vulnerable individuals, and they look at it as a quick way to get themselves out of financial difficulty, and it usually ends up putting them further into debt.
BEBINGER: But Treasurer Cahill argues that a casino could help, by generating some money for problem gambling programs.
CAHILL: As opposed to having people drive across the border to gamble, and then bring their problems back here for us to try to solve with no revenue to do it. So it's kind of really about taking responsibility. By not sighting casinos here we're not keeping people from gambling, we're just telling people if you want to do it, you have to go to another state and do it.
BEBINGER: Perhaps the key wildcard in the gambling debate right now is Governor Deval Patrick, who says he is purposely not making any decisions until next year's budget is in place.
PATRICK: Because I don' think we ought to be thinking about an option like this to close a short term budget gap.
We have to think through expanded gaming or gambling based on whether it makes sense as an economic development opportunity for Massachusetts. And what combination of factors and circumstances under which it would make sense, and that's what I'm trying to do.
BEBINGER: Patrick says he will make a decision about his position on casino gambling after his task force on the issue releases a report sometime this summer. The legislature, hearings on gambling bills, and possibly Cahill's plan, are scheduled for mid June. For WBUR, I'm Martha Bebinger at the State House.
This program aired on May 25, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.
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