Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Massachusetts legislature is about to legalize casino wagering.
I know, shock of all shocks, right? What has it been-a year since the last attempt to do so failed, which was a year after a previous casino enabling bill met its usual torturous demise in the statehouse and so on? Forgive me this time if I refuse to get excited over this. The yearly thumping of a once promising Massachusetts casino expansion bill by politically motivated state legislators is about as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano or Republicans voting down a tax increase.
Of course, I hope this is not the case. God knows, all the signs point toward Massachusetts being a great market for casino gaming. The state actually has a growing economy and population centers where nascent gaming options, outside of the thriving state lottery, are largely non-existent. Casino expansion is supported by a growing majority of state citizens and businesses according to recent studies. Indeed, anecdotal evidence in the form of cars with Massachusetts license plates at cross-border tribal and commercial casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island show Bay Staters are very accepting of the casino gaming model.
In turn, Massachusetts has long been on the mind of the casino development community. In the past, operators such as Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Penn National Gaming and a long list of others have nosed around the state, looking for promising casino sites.
On the political front, Massachusetts legislators long ago made peace with the idea of gaming expansion. Gov. Deval Patrick has been a proponent of casino legalization since he entered office. Each year a plethora of gaming bills are introduced by the Massachusetts House and Senate-everything from VLTs for lotteries to slots and shuttered racetracks-in hope of raising much needed funds for state coffers.
Yet despite this wide ranging support, casino expansion bills have tended to suffer rather long and drawn out deaths in the Massachusetts Legislature, often for reasons that have very little to do with gaming itself. Take last year for example, where Gov. Patrick, the House and the Senate all introduced casino expansion bills that were roughly similar-calling for the establishment of three to five regional casinos and the right for some tracks to offer slot machine gaming. It appeared a compromise measure was in order, but when the parties sat down to mesh a plan, election year politics got in the way. Gov. Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo clashed over slots at tracks and, fearing to look weak before the electorate, neither side budged, effectively killing the bill. In previous years, former House leader Salvatore DiMasi, an ardent gaming opponent, made sure all casino expansion bills no matter how popular or well supported were killed in the Legislature.
With this history in mind, gaming proponents have worked long and hard to craft a bill that will finally make it through the state Legislature. The 155-page measure calls for the establishment of three large regional casinos and a single slot parlor. Licensing and tax issues have also been worked out. To avoid last year’s fiasco, Gov. Patrick, Rep. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray were involved in the process and have already signed-off on the bill.
So here we are again, with another Massachusetts casino bill that appears to be a sure bet. I want to believe the Legislature will do the right thing and pass the bill this time. I believe this will happen, I hope this will happen, but I can’t guarantee it will happen. Much like a Red Sox fan before 2004, there is still a part of me that believes, no matter how unlikely, that the Legislature will yet again fold under pressure and drop the ball. I’m just waiting to see whose legs the ball rolls between.