Point person on legislation confident of a speedy resolution

June 17, 2010
By

More and more, expanding gaming in Massachusetts – and most likely in Revere and East Boston – has become a matter of how rather than when.

While proponents at Suffolk Downs, Wonderland and other pro-gaming entities have struggled for years to get approval for expanded gaming, this time around it looks as if the matter will be passed once and for all – and maybe sooner rather than later.

Any expanded gaming bill is expected to eventually benefit front-runner Suffolk Downs, changing the landscape in Revere more than it has been changed in generations.

The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved an expanded gaming bill earlier this spring and sent it to the Senate, where it’s been lingering.

Many thought it might die there – as it has been totally rewritten – but now there seems to be new hope and certainty that the measure is a done deal.

Oddly enough, it is a Revere native that is at the center of the debate in the Senate.

Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) grew up in Revere and graduated from Revere High School before establishing his career in western Massachusetts. About three years ago, he was asked by the senate president to become the gaming guru for that body, and he has had quite a bit of input in crafting the new Senate bill.

Rosenberg sat down with the Journal this week for a conference call interview. He said that the Senate’s bill will come out of committee this week and that it would be debated on the Senate floor on June 23rd.

“There’s a strong majority in the Senate for casinos, but everybody has their buts,” he said with a laugh. “There is certainly an appetite for expanded gaming, but there are a variety of things people want to make sure are addressed so that we end up maximizing the benefits and minimizing the difficulties.”

One of the challenges at the moment is that the House bill and the Senate bill are very different, particularly in regard to placing slot machines at the state’s dog tracks. If the Senate passes its bill, a conference committee would have to work out those differences.

And they would have to do it quickly, as there is a deadline of July 31st. If that day comes without a final bill on the governor’s desk, the effort is all for naught.

Rosenberg said he was confident they would get something to the governor by mid-July – about a month from now.

“Effectively, we’re really looking at the middle of July,” he said. “There is plenty of time to work out our differences…If people want to get ‘ts,’ they can get ‘ts.’ This is not rocket science.”

He said ‘ts’ referred to getting a bill on the governor’s desk that would be signed.

Rosenberg has been studying the expanded gaming issue for three years after having been tapped by Senate President Therese Murray to head up the issue.

He has traveled to 13 or 14 casinos in the U.S. and Canada, has visited with seven or eight regulatory agencies, and met with academic experts all over North America.

“I’ve handled a lot of sensitive issues since I’ve been in the Senate,” he said. “I’ve been there 24 years. The Senate President wanted somebody who would do the homework and [impartially] look at all angles and sort through the complexities.”

That’s just what he’s done, and now the Senate bill is in the last stages of the process.

He said the current bill has a regulatory structure similar to Nevada’s.

Meanwhile, it calls for three resort casinos – one in Greater Boston, one in western Massachusetts, and one in southeast Massachusetts that would be operated by a Native American Indian Tribe.

He said the tribal issue is one potential problem the Senate tried to address, unlike the House bill.

“One big unknown is we have a recently recognized federal tribe not having land in trust now, but when it gets this land in trust they’ll be able to proceed with the highest gaming allowed without taxation or regulation,” he said. “We were trying to take the uncertainty out of the development of the market.”

One key difference for Revere would be the exclusion of slots at existing horse and dog tracks. The House bill used the slots as a interim measure to create quick revenue, but Rosenberg said they’re not a good idea.

He said that they are typically installed to help subsidize or save the racing industry, which is quickly declining.

“Slots end up dominating the facility and then racing still goes away,” he said. “What you’re left with is a slot parlor with a few nice restaurants. It’s a very different employment picture.”

He said that resort casinos are where the emphasis should be.

“Massachusetts is coming to this late so we have to be that much more focused about what we do in order to keep Massachusetts players now going to other states here, and also to attract tourists for afar. People don’t come into a state from far away to go to slot parlors or Racinos…You travel to resort casinos.”

Rosenberg said the Senate bill calls for licenses that would be subject to competitive bidding by potential operators. Those licenses would be quite expensive and he said it would be expected that operators would have identified mitigation efforts in their bids.

Mitigation, host fees, and infrastructure improvements have been key sticking points for neighborhoods like Beachmont and Orient Heights that surround Suffolk Downs.

He said that any applicant should have legal documents with host communities and abutting communities concerning transportation, public infrastructure, traffic, public safety, and impacts on the public schools.

“We would expect Memorandums of Agreement or Memorandums of Understanding with host communities and similarly with the surrounding communities,” he said.

One of the larger questions has been what a resort casino facility would look like in Massachusetts.

He said it could be anything from Mohegan Sun to The Sands in Las Vegas.

“It’s fairly large-scale and with multiple entertainment venues,” he said. “There’s gaming for sure, but also theatres and musical productions and cabarets and multiple levels of restaurant experiences…Others have malls attached with high-end to moderate-priced shopping. They will typically have a spa or two or three so you can have a massage or facial. It’s a wide-range of experiences. Some are even looking at incorporating entertainment parks like waterslides or rides for the kids.”

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