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In Mass., A Politically Correct Casino Debate

This article is more than 10 years old.

Massachusetts lawmakers enthralled with the lure of easy casino cash are having a tough time squaring the 24-hour world of smoke-filled, free-booze gambling haunts with the state's Puritan roots and high-minded liberal reputation.

During lengthy debates in the Massachusetts House and Senate, legislators have weighed all sorts of restrictions on casinos — from bans on smoking and free drinks to limits on ATM withdrawals, midnight closing times, slot machine warning labels and visits from public health counselors for gamblers who've spent too much time feeding quarters into slots.

And that's not even counting the trans fat food ban.

For casino supporters, the agonized debate is more proof that Massachusetts is living up to its bona fides as a nanny state.

"I think that we're trying to engineer a politically correct casino, and almost by their nature casinos have elements that make some people uncomfortable," Republican Sen. Bruce Tarr said.

But casino foes aren't ready to give ground, especially when it comes to hard-fought public health victories, such as a 6-year-old statewide smoking ban and a prohibition on restaurants and bars offering free or discounted drinks.

Sen. Susan Fargo pushed a failed amendment that would have barred casinos from offering free drinks. She said there's nothing politically correct about trying to protect the public health.

"We know they want people to stay at the tables and smoke and drink so that their judgment becomes impaired and you get these three addictions — gambling, smoking and drinking — all kind of tied together," said Fargo, a Democrat and Senate chair of the Public Health Committee.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who wants to force casinos to close from midnight to 8 a.m., said they shouldn't get a free pass on regulations that govern every other restaurant, bar and business in the state.

"Why is it a nanny state to say they have abide by the same rules as everyone else?" the Democratic lawmaker said. "It is not a nanny state, it is an equal playing field."

Other states have been reluctant to ban smoking in casinos.

A Michigan law that took effect in May banned smoking in the state's restaurants and bars but exempted casino gambling floors. A similar law set to take effect in Kansas in July also exempts the gambling areas of state-owned casinos.

Nine states allow free drinks at casinos. Five states don't.

At times, the Massachusetts debate has crossed the line into parody.

Republican leader Sen. Richard Tisei mockingly offered an amendment to ban the sale of food containing trans fat at casinos, only to have Fargo jump up and extoll the virtues of a trans fat-free diet. The Senate rejected the proposal.

In the House, casino foes offered amendments that would have placed warning labels on all casino marketing materials, required casinos to have clocks publicly displayed and barred gaming venues from pumping chemical substances called pheromones into the air to encourage patrons to keep gambling.

"When you're feeling like a millions bucks, you don't mind betting a million bucks," said Democratic Rep. Cory Atkins, who filed the pheromone amendment.

Other failed House amendments would have set a $500 limit on how much an individual could lose in a day, prohibited the use of so-called casino luck ambassadors to urge people to return to slot machines as they're heading to the exit doors and required a public health official to intervene if someone has continued betting for more than 12 hours at a time.

Casino supporters say the proposed restrictions will eat into the state's anticipated revenues.

Democratic Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos said the decision by the House and Senate to ban smoking at the casinos has forced him to lower projected revenues by about $95 million from an original estimated high of about $450 million a year.

Even some of the state's most prominent casino supporters are trying keep gambling's seamier side at arm's length.

Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who first proposed an expanded gaming bill in 2007, said he envisions resort-style destination casinos that include restaurants and entertainment along with the slots, roulette tables and craps.

Patrick opposes putting slot machines at the state's four racetracks. The House bill would license two casinos and the four so-called racinos while the Senate bill would license three casinos but continue the ban on racetrack slots.

"What I've said," Patrick 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."

This program aired on July 1, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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