Optimism is high in the state Senate on expanded gaming, according to Sen. Anthony Petruccelli (D-East Boston), who told the City Council Monday that they could probably expect something by the end of the summer.
Legislation has been kicked around Beacon Hill since last fall, when House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) announced he would file a bill concerning expanded gaming that included resort casinos and slot machines at existing racetracks.
That effort hit a zenith this spring when DeLeo passed his bill in the House with a veto proof majority.
Then it went to the state Senate and hit a wall.
While the bill has been altered greatly (slots at the tracks have been taken out) in the Senate, Petruccelli said that there is great momentum in the body to get something done before the July 31 deadline.
“It has been portrayed that the versions are pretty far apart,” said Petruccelli. “I would say they are not and all parties are united in getting this done and getting a product signed by the governor before the end of July. I’m very optimistic that there will be a major economic development project in Revere…I’m fairly optimistic we will have something to look forward to by the end of the summer.”
Petruccelli has become a point person on the gambling issue since it went to the Senate and hit a very controversial slowdown. The only other person ahead of Petruccelli on the issue is Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst), who is actually a Revere native and a Revere High graduate.
Both are heading up the Senate efforts, and many are saying that they’re acting too slow or even killing the bill. Petruccelli disagreed and said there is a deadline of July 31st, and something would happen before then.
“July 31 is the day we should all get a little nervous if there’s no action,” said Petruccelli.
The senator told the Council he isn’t too concerned with the removal of slots from tracks like Wonderland. While originally he was hesitant to support expanded gaming, he said now he has made up his mind to support resort casinos exclusively.
“It took me a couple of years to get to the point where I support and prefer a resort casino at Suffolk Downs,” he said. “As we look at it, the benefits outweigh the impacts.”
He said casinos would create more jobs, more revenue and would be sustainable over the long-term.
Mayor Tom Ambrosino said the Senate bill’s differences didn’t take away from the city’s position on the issue.
“My opinion is the city is better off with one full-scale casino at Suffolk,” he said. “In terms of the Senate’s proposal, we’re not adversely impacted by not having slots at [Wonderland]. We just hope Suffolk ramps up to a full-blown casino. We don’t want to wait three years for something to emerge.”
He also added that there is an effort in the Senate to speed up the licensing process if expanded gaming is approved. While it typically takes more than two years for a casino to open after approval, he said many want to shorten that time period.
Councillor Stephen Reardon said he was apprehensive about that.
“I’d hate to see a slipshod operation because we wanted to get something up and going quickly,” he said.
A public hearing on the issue was held in the Senate on Tuesday, June 8, with several parties giving testimony for and against the proposal. There will be a debate on the issue in the Senate in the third week of June.
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In other news from Beacon Hill, one of the biggest issues on the horizon is MassHealth (federal Medicaid) funding.
The State Budget has assumed that some $700 million will be forthcoming from the federal government in the form of Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage (FMAP) money. FMAP money is a Stimulus Bill initiative to temporarily help states cover health insurance for the poor, indigent, blind, and children. In Massachusetts, that program is called MassHealth.
In order to help out states last year, Stimulus money was directed towards these state health insurance programs. This year, extending those benefits in the area of $24 billion isn’t too popular. Already, the extension has been eliminated from one bill. So far, Congress isn’t moving quickly on the measure, and they have only until December to act.
Petruccelli said that if Congress doesn’t act, it would leave an $800 million hole in the State Budget that would have to be filled.
“The Conference Committee will probably prepare a report with the money and without the money,” he said. “It will be a strikingly different looking budget document without that [federal] money.”
The problem with all of that is the hole in the budget will most likely be addressed in part with cuts to Local Aid, money that comes directly to the city. Already, local aid has been cut by 4 percent in this year’s budget.
“We do not want to entertain reductions in local aid, but I would be lying to you if I said we wouldn’t look in part at local aid,” he said.
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Councillors praised Petruccelli for keeping funding in the budget to finish a Logan Airport health study that has been lingering for years.
The study was started, but not finished. It looks at the possible health effects of Logan Airport on the communities lying in the flight path, including a lot of east Revere.
Preliminary reports from the unfinished study have been revealed to show that there are problems with respiratory health that wasn’t related to smoking.