There’s a new speaker in charge of the House with a much more open attitude about the casino issue. And the bleak long-term outlook for state revenues has thrown the Legislature’s recurring gambling debate into an entirely new light.
Walk with me as we navigate the crowds to watch the high rollers play a time-honored game of chance: betting on the future of Massachusetts casinos.
Move quickly past the carnival sounds of the slot machines and the hushed tones of the blackjack players. The real action can be found where average folks like us aren’t normally allowed – in a backroom packed with some of the biggest names in the casino industry.
I know we’re in the middle of a recession, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see these guys dropping the big bucks to play again this year. They will likely get a receptive audience at the State House, where a hearing on gambling is expected next month and a bill could be sent to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk by December.
The Senate has generally shown a bit of a soft spot for the industry, but bills to allow slots or full-scale casinos have been stonewalled by previous House speakers Tom Finneran and Sal DiMasi. This time around, there’s a new speaker in charge – Rep. Robert DeLeo – with a much more open attitude about the issue. And the bleak long-term outlook for state revenues has thrown the Legislature’s recurring gambling debate into an entirely new light.
The smart money is on a proposal that would allow one to three resort casinos – along with slots at more than one of the state’s four racetracks. The casino licenses would be divvied up geographically to limit the overlap.
Getting into this game isn’t cheap: Developers and casino operators collectively blew through more than a half-million dollars on lobbyists in the first six months of this year alone.
The owners of Suffolk Downs are among the big spenders at the table. They ponied up more than $200,000 for lobbying expenses in 2009 so far. In this game of chance, they have a home-field advantage. The power brokers on Beacon Hill – including DeLeo, whose hometown of Winthrop is around the corner – are quite familiar with the track and its economic impact.
The East Boston track’s future is arguably the biggest wild card in this deck: Will Suffolk end up with slots, a resort casino or nothing new at all? The track’s owners have long argued for slots at the tracks. But Richard Fields, a casino developer and horse aficionado, upped the ante after buying a major stake in the track two years ago. He is making a push to turn the track into a major casino resort close to Logan Airport and downtown Boston.
The state’s other tracks are players, too. Suffolk has an option in place to buy the Wonderland track, although Wonderland’s owners have still paid for the Revere track’s own lobbyist. The stakes are high for the state’s two greyhound tracks – Wonderland and Raynham Park – as the voters put dog racing on its last lap with a ballot question to ban the practice on Jan. 1. Plainridge’s owners aren’t missing the party, either: Slot machines could still be a big boost for the harness track, even though it’s not expected to be in line for a full-scale casino license.
There are other familiar faces at the table: The Mohegan Sun’s tribal gaming authority is keeping tabs on potential rivals to its flagship Connecticut casino while building support for its own casino plan in Palmer.
Speaking of tribes, aren’t the Mashpee Wampanoags still playing? Yes, they’re here, but their hand is nowhere near as strong as it was when they drove the debate two years ago. The tribe’s effort to get a Middleboro site designated as reservation land for a casino was dealt a major setback by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in February, and essentially requires an act of Congress now. It doesn’t help matters much that the tribe’s main investors – who face their own financial problems over at Twin River in Lincoln, R.I. – have cut off the flow of money.
East Longmeadow developer Leon Dragone is here, hedging his bets. Dragone has a development deal with the Mohegans for the Palmer site. He’s also lining up a waterfront location in New Bedford for another potential operator. It’s hard to blame him: The Palmer site could lose out to another location out west, such as a state-owned site off the Pike in Warren.
Then there are the Las Vegas heavyweights, looking for a piece of the action. A Massachusetts casino would be a sort of homecoming for Harrah’s CEO Gary Loveman, a Bay State resident who was recruited from the staid life of a Harvard Business School professor into the glitzy casino biz in the late 1990s. Ditto for Sheldon Adelson, a child of immigrants from Dorchester who is now a gambling mogul as CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp. One of their biggest Vegas rivals, Steve Wynn, is here as well.
The expansion of gaming in the state still has its ardent foes, and casinos are by no means a sure thing. Many of these players may walk away with little or nothing to show for their money. But they realize that casino gambling has never been a safer bet in this state than it is right now and, as any gambler knows, you can’t win if you don’t play.
Jon Chesto, business editor of The Patriot Ledger, may be reached at email@example.com.