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The casino debate is heating up again on Beacon Hill. Lawmakers held what they called an informational hearing Monday about bringing casino gambling to Massachusetts.
It was only last year that House lawmakers voted down Gov. Patrick's plan to license three casinos in the state. But a lot has changed since last year.
Sen. Karen Spilka of Framingham chaired Monday's hearing on gambling. "Clearly there is a change in the political environment," Spilka said. "We have a new speaker."
Speaker Sal DiMasi, who resigned in January, was the biggest stumbling block to Gov. Deval Patrick's hopes for casinos. Supporters of gambling expect Speaker Robert De Leo to be more favorable to it. Senate President Therese Murray has said the legislature will probably act on a bill legalizing gambling this fall.
Because of the change in the political climate, casino operators seem interested in coming to the state. Among them is Mohegan Sun, which operates a casino in Connecticut, and has recently taken out a lease on 152 acres just off the Massachsuetts Turnpike in Palmer.
"We can bring new dollars into the commonwealth from New York and Vermont and New Hampshire," said Jeff Hartman, Mohegan Sun's chief of operations. "We think the New York market in the Albany area and Orange County is kind of under-served right now."
Hartman said the casino will look and feel like the one in Connecticut, but will be smaller. The hotel in Connecticut has 1,200 rooms; the one in Massachusetts would probably have 600 rooms. He said a lot will depend on how many casinos the legislature approves in Eastern Massachusetts — the fewer the casinos in the eastern part of the state, the bigger the one in Palmer might be.
If the political environment is more favorable to casinos than it was last year, Sen. Spilka pointed out that the economy is not. "It is definitely a different economic climate, and the revenue that would be brought in would not be the same as it was two years ago," Spilka said.
Legislators heard that the recession has been particularly brutal to the kind of destination casinos Gov. Patrick wants because spending at these casinos was tied to housing values.
Michael Pollock, who was hired by Patrick to study casino gambling, warned that there is an inverse correlation between savings and growth in casino revenues. The more Americans save, he's found, the less they spend in casinos. During the housing boom, Americans were spending more than they were saving, and casinos were booming. Now, Americans are saving.
"Saving more is a good thing," Pollock said. "From society's standpoint that is a good thing. But it makes it harder for destination casinos to get back to where they were, if they'll ever get back to where they were."
Last year, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce predicted that building three casinos would create 17,000 permanent jobs. Jim Klocke, the, executive vice president for public policy at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, predicted that fewer jobs would be created today. "Estimates conducted today would be considerably lower given the economic hurricane that we have seen," Klocke said.
Klocke argued that this is probably the worst time for the state to put to issue licenses for casinos out to bid, because they would probably fetch much lower prices this year than last, or than in a few years, if the economy rebounds.
This program aired on June 30, 2009.
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