House takes up casino gambling plan
House Ways and Means subcommittee heard arguments on a proposal attached to House Bill 593 that would bring two casinos to the state with up to 10,000 slot machines. The casino license fee is set at $50 million. Applications would be due by January 2013. The state would collect 35 percent of revenues from slot machines and 8 percent of table games, with an expected annual flow of $130 million or more to the state, bill supporters say.
Supporters said that with Massachusetts on the brink of approving a major casino bill, it is time for the state to act. Casinos here will keep gamblers and their money at home, they said.
Opponents said the plan is rushed, has inadequate safeguards against crime, addiction and corruption, and will not benefit the state in the long run.
Two leading House members weighed in Tuesday. Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Steve Stepanek, R-Amherst, authored the newest plan; House Finance Committee Chairman Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, testified in its favor. Together, they oversee all House spending and taxing policy.
'The dynamic has changed,' Stepanek said after the hearing.
He said he will take a hands-off approach to the issue. He said his amendment is aimed at having the best bill possible under consideration. His committee has to make a recommendation on the bill before January. The state Senate, too, has gambling bills before it.
The House has held steadfast against gambling bills in the past, despite gaming growth in Connecticut and Maine.
If Massachusetts allows slot machines and casinos, it will cut deeply into charitable gaming and lottery sales here, Stepanek and others said.
The Massachusetts House this month approved a bill to bring expanded gambling to the Commonwealth with three full resort casinos. Gov. Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts Senate got behind the general plan during the summer.
Jim Demers, a lobbyist representing Millennium Gaming, which has a $450 million plan for gambling at Salem's Rockingham Park, said timing is important, because it could take up to 36 months to get a facility up and running.
'This is an opportunity to beat Massachusetts to the punch,' Demers said. Besides the gaming revenue, he said, expansion will bring new construction jobs and permanent jobs at the casinos.
Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said her office opposes the bill on several grounds. The bill rushes the state into the gambling business, she said. It gives the Lottery Commission 90 days to establish rules for an entire commercial gaming industry, and her office 60 days to conduct a background check on proposed licensees. She called the timeframes 'simply inadequate' and 'absolutely unrealistic.'
Subcommittee Chair Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, took pains to have witnesses make clear that the bill is meant to fund tax cuts, not increased government spending. License fees would go the Rainy Day fund, and the lion's share of casino taxes would go to the state treasury.
The bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Edmond Gionet, R-Lincoln, said he wants to see the state property tax cut or eliminated, and business taxes lowered. Stepanek would cut only business taxes.
Critics said the best that sponsors can hope for is a temporary tax cut.
Jim Rubens, chair of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling, said besides the tax issue, other concerns include a steep increase in problem and addicted gamblers, constant pressure from the industry, potential corruption and social costs.
'We are legalizing and sanctioning a machine that depends for its profitability on creating addiction,' he told the subcommittee.