By Bethany Bray
The Massachusetts House and Senate approved a bill yesterday to allow up to three resort-style casinos and one slots parlor in the Bay State, bringing resolution to an issue that has been discussed on Beacon Hill for decades.
Local lawmakers who voted for the bill say it will create thousands of much-needed jobs and capture revenue that was otherwise going to casinos in neighboring states.
"Most importantly, it's a jobs bill," said Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem.
The casinos will bring blue-collar jobs — a sector of the economy that needs a boost, Keenan said — including jobs in construction and service.
"Good entry-level jobs in the casinos that provide an opportunity for advancement," he said.
"There are going to be issues in terms of gambling and addiction, but I feel we've made a significant effort in putting money toward that," Keenan said.
The House voted 118-33 in favor of the bill yesterday afternoon; the Senate quickly followed, voting 23-14.
The bill was headed to Gov. Deval Patrick's desk late yesterday; he had indicated he was in favor of the concept.
"I'm glad the debate is over," said Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers. "Primarily, I'm not a huge fan of casino gambling, but when you have a state where you can literally walk from any home in the commonwealth to a place that sells a scratch ticket, it's kind of hypocritical to say we ought not to have gambling in the state."
The compromise bill that passed yesterday had been negotiated by a six-member panel of lawmakers, charged with forging consensus between the House and Senate.
The final version of the bill includes a Senate amendment that bars state lawmakers and local officials from working in the casino industry for at least one year after leaving office.
Another Senate amendment, which would have eased restrictions on happy hours at bars and restaurants in Massachusetts, was dropped.
However, the bill allows casinos to offer free or discounted drinks on the gambling floor only.
Sen. Fred Berry, D-Peabody, said he places confidence in the new five-member gambling commission created by the bill. The commission, to be appointed by the governor, treasurer and attorney general, will have oversight and control of the gambling industry.
"We have succeeded in taking out politics," Berry said. "I think we are going to have the best controls. ... The gaming commission will have all the power."
The legalization of expanded gambling in Massachusetts is expected to set off a scramble for the licensing rights for each of the three casinos and the slots parlor, whose locations are yet to be determined.
Keenan said the slots parlor is expected to be built first, followed by the casinos. Suffolk Downs in East Boston could be a possibility for one of the new sites, he said, creating employment opportunities for the North Shore.
"I would be hard-pressed to believe that Suffolk is not going to be one of the contenders," he said.
In addition to creating jobs, the passage of the gaming bill is expected to capture millions in revenue that was going to casinos out of state.
"If there's a headache that gaming causes, people come back (to Massachusetts) and we end up funding programs to help them, but we don't benefit from any of the revenues," Berry said.
Seniors were "very much" in favor of the bill, Speliotis said. They're using the casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut "in droves," he said, and they're tired of the commute.
"Quite frankly, they've earned the right, if they wish to go," Speliotis said.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Staff writer Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.