DeLeo puts his cards on the table – Town Manager’s reaction is measured

It’s anyone’s bet as to whether expanded gaming will pass this time around, but House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) said that, whether a joker or an ace, the cards are about to be dealt.

Over the last week, Winthrop’s own Rep. DeLeo has been the statewide go-to guy on gambling and has announced that he is about done drafting his expanded gaming bill. He said he will propose it to the state House of Representatives very soon. While casinos and racinos have failed too many times to count in the past, this time everyone from Boston to North Adams agrees that it could turn out differently.

“I think that we’re going to be debating this by the end of April,” DeLeo told the Sun Transcript by phone on Monday. “We’re still fine-tuning our bill – probably be a couple weeks before we’re done with that.”

While DeLeo said he could not yet give a lot of specifics about the bill, he did say that he would be including a provision requiring that a fee be paid to cities and towns that host or abut any casino facility. That would mean – if Suffolk Downs were to get a casino, as is expected – Winthrop would stand to benefit from an abutters fee, while Revere and Boston would receive a larger host fee.

“I’m working on a host fee,” he said. “Any contiguous community hosting a facility should be compensated in some fashion. Abutting communities as well – such as Winthrop would be to Suffolk Downs – we’re working on something for those communities.”

However, he did not yet reveal details about how much those fees would be worth.

Winthrop Town Manager James McKenna was rather reserved about DeLeo’s proposal, saying there would need to be a lot of discussion even with an inclusion of mitigation money for Winthrop.

“Our expectation is there will be a full vetting of what the impact of this might be, from traffic to socio-economic,” said McKenna. “Winthrop’s geography is challenging in that there are two ways in and out and that both of those ways will especially be affected by a significant redevelopment of the Suffolk Downs area. No doubt that will have an impact on how our community accesses the rest of the region. We just want to make sure we have a voice, and that voice is heard.”

Unlike in other communities, such as Revere, where a promise of host fees has been the deal-maker for governmental approval, McKenna said the town would need some explanation before it blindly accepts casino fees.

“There should be a rational nexus between what the fee is and what it’s there to compensate,” he said. “If it’s there for traffic, that fee should be there to mitigate that. If it’s crime, then the fee should go towards that. Do we like new money? Sure, but I think we need to understand what the new money is about. We’re not being bought off.”

McKenna said before any casino is sited at Suffolk Downs, he would like legitimate studies from independent investigators concerning the potential effects on surrounding communities. He said he didn’t want studies done by agents of the casinos that led to a foregone conclusion.

“I want third-party, peer reviewed analysis we can rely on,” he said.

On Beacon Hill, the prospects of DeLeo’s bill are very high considering dire financial conditions in state government and leaders that are in favor of gaming. Also, DeLeo’s bill is considered to be one that would satisfy all parties involved.

In the last attempt at expanded gaming, Gov. Deval Patrick led the charge with destination-style casinos – only to be rebuffed by former Speaker Sal DiMasi (D-North End). Before that, former state Senate President Robert Travaglini (D-East Boston) introduced and passed a gambling bill, only to have it shot down in the House.

This time, DeLeo will lead the charge and he has a few twists of his own.

He said the two major components of his bill would be that it would allow two full casinos and also slots at the state’s existing race tracks – places such as Raynham and Revere’s Wonderland Dog Track.

No one has ever proposed both casinos and slots before. It has always been an either/or situation.

DeLeo said proposing both forms of expanded gaming stuck to his message, which is job creation.

“From day one I have said there has to be more jobs here in Massachusetts,” he said. “I look at this as a good way to do that. Slots can be helpful for that and keep tracks open. I hear people say they like casinos but they’re not sold on the slots. We have a lot of people at these racetracks who depend on jobs at these tracks, which might be hard to keep open without this.”

He said, though, it didn’t mean that those tracks couldn’t also compete for a casino license.

“Some have said this would stop tracks from applying for a casino license,” DeLeo said. “No. Not at all. They’ll still be able to apply if they’re interested.”

Rather than a jackpot for Wonderland, many see DeLeo’s inclusion of slots at the tracks as a bone thrown to the former dog track on the South Shore (i.e., Raynham) and its gregarious owner, George Carney. Many – perhaps even Wonderland itself – prefer a combined casino effort for the former dog track and Suffolk Downs.

Revere Mayor Tom Ambrosino said he probably wouldn’t like to see slots at Wonderland, but rather a development that would complement a casino at Suffolk.

“From Revere’s perspective, we would like to see a full-blown casino at Suffolk and then a development at Wonderland,” he said. “I think as a partnership, both Wonderland and Suffolk would like to see one large-scale casino going forward at Suffolk.”

DeLeo said he felt very strong, also, about including more funding in the bill for problem gambling and increased law enforcement activity, perhaps satisfying some of the concerns relayed by McKenna and others in Winthrop.

“We’ve been working with the Attorney General to be sure our public safety officials have the ability to address any problems they may have due to expanded gaming,” he said.

In conclusion, DeLeo said he hopes to have a bill on the governor’s desk before the beginning of summer.

“I’m anticipating we’ll discuss this two, maybe three, weeks and get it to the Senate before we do our budget,” he said. “Hopefully, [the Senate] can address this before they do their budget. I’d like to put together a conference committee and get the bill to the governor before the end of our session. That’s my hope.”

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