More than a thousand union workers packed the Statehouse on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to legalize casinos, saying they will bring desperately needed jobs to Massachusetts.
Gambling foes held a press conference later in the day warning of the social costs of expanded gambling and to decry what they called the "super secret slots bill."
The flurry of activity comes a day before House Speaker Robert DeLeo unveils a long-awaited casino bill.
DeLeo supports the construction of two casinos in Massachusetts and a limited number of slot machines at the state's four existing race tracks, two of which are in the Winthrop Democrat's district.
Gov. Deval Patrick, also a Democrat, is opposed to racetrack slots. Patrick prefers destination casinos but has stopped short of saying he would veto any bill that includes racetrack slots.
For the union workers, the number one issue is jobs.
Julie van Gestel, a union painter, said too many of her fellow workers are struggling to make ends meet in the worst economy in decades. She said casinos and slot parlors could put hundreds to work almost immediately.
She also said that with so many casinos in neighboring states, Massachusetts is being forced to deal with the downside of casinos with none of the positives, like jobs and extra revenue.
"Nobody's putting a gun to anyone's head to get on a bus and go to Foxwoods" Resort Casino in Connecticut, said van Gestel, 38, of Boston. "If people want to gamble, they're going to gamble."
Critics say expanding gambling will bring more costs like gambling addiction.
They say the state needs to conduct a better economic analysis looking at the pros and cons of casinos. They also say casinos in other states are struggling and gambling may not be the economic magic bullet it appears to be.
"We need to know who wins in this deal, the gambling special interests or Massachusetts taxpayers who have to pay for the increased social and infrastructure costs," said Kathleen Conley Norbut, president of United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts.
Norbut said her group wasn't consulted by DeLeo's office. She said the bill shouldn't be fast tracked for a quick House vote without a public hearing.
The Rev. Jack Johnson, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said it's cruel for the state to balance its budget on the backs of those addicted to gambling.
"It is cruel and frankly financially irresponsible to say that some people's lives are simply the cost of doing business," he said.
Casino critics also say that allowing casinos could pave the way for additional casinos by Indian tribes. The Mashpee Wampanoags are actively working to bring a casino to Massachusetts.
The lure of casinos has drawn millions in lobbying dollars to the state.
The amount spent by firms, unions and interest groups hoping to influence the debate has grown from just more than $800,000 in 2006 to more than $2 million in 2009, according to an Associated Press review of records filed with the secretary of state's office.
The vast majority of the lobbying dollars are being spent by groups hoping to get a piece of the gambling pie if lawmakers ultimately vote to expand gaming.
The union workers supporting casinos have already won over some lawmakers. Rep. Martin Walsh said the state needs the immediate jobs that the slot parlors would bring and the longer term jobs of destination casinos.
"We need to see cranes and we're not seeing cranes," said Walsh, D-Boston, noting the dearth of construction in the state. "Our jobs are winding down. We need more jobs."
Supporters say that with the state's top three political leaders — Patrick, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray — all supporting expanding gambling, the chances are good a bill will pass this year.
But labor organizers say they're taking nothing for granted.
"That's a good thing, but people get to vote and there are still people who are opposed," said Mass. AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes.
This program aired on March 31, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.