BOSTON — State lawmakers have passed a landmark casino gambling bill that will allow resort-style casinos to open, and may create a thoroughbred horse-breeding facility in the Greater Newburyport area.
The House voted 118-33 yesterday afternoon to accept the compromise bill, which will allow up to three resort-style casinos and one slots parlor. The Senate quickly followed, approving the bill on a 23-14 vote. Each chamber must take a final procedural vote before sending the bill to Gov. Deval Patrick, who is expected to support it.
Voting in favor were the four lawmakers who represent the Greater Newburyport area — Sens. Steven Baddour and Bruce Tarr, and Reps. Michael Costello and Harriett Stanley.
Costello, D-Newburyport, called it "the most significant piece of economic development legislation that we could have passed.
"The gaming legislation passed today by the House is expected to create more than 15,000 jobs over the next five years and produce new streams of revenue to address areas like education, transportation infrastructure and public health," Costello said. "The bill requires both an up-front payment for the gaming license and, in the case of the three casinos, an additional investment of at least $500 million in infrastructure.
"Additionally, I think we have put appropriate controls in place to oversee gaming in the commonwealth and ensure the best experience for the consumer and the best result for the state."
Stanley, D-West Newbury, said it is a way to get out in front of the casino gambling issue.
"This was a long time coming, and it's better for us to decide how we're going to do this than wait for others to decide for us," Stanley said yesterday, referring to large gaming corporations or Native American tribal entities.
Stanley said she's "pretty happy" with the 150-page bill. The part of the bill Stanley likes the most is the revenue it will generate to support local thoroughbred breeding programs, known as the race horse development fund.
"I don't have any race tracks in my district, but this part of the bill is important to a lot of breeders and horse folks in my district," Stanley said.
According to the bill, 9 percent of the gross revenues raised through video, or slot machine, gambling will be dedicated to the race horse development fund and 5 percent of the gross revenues from the casinos will go to the fund.
"I'm thrilled with that part of the bill," Stanley said. "Having slot machines — which many think of as the underside of gambling — was really important to build up the breeding programs in my district. Suffolk Downs wants to move its (horse) training facility from its track in East Boston to a location on (Interstate) 95 north, which is right in my district."
If the bill ultimately becomes law, it could still take several years before any casino opens its doors in the state. A slots parlor could open sooner.
Bids for the casino licenses would start at $85 million. Bids for the slots parlor license would start at $25 million.
Rep. Joseph Wagner helped shepherd the bill through the House and sat on the six-member conference committee.
"We think it's a reasonable, good and fair compromise," said Wagner, D-Chicopee.
Wagner defended key compromises in the final bill, including a decision to drop an amendment tacked on to the Senate bill that could have lifted restrictions on happy hours in Massachusetts at bars and restaurants by giving those establishments that same ability to offer free or discounted drinks as the casinos.
Wagner said that the final bill will allow casinos to offer free or discounted drinks only on the gambling floor and not at restaurants or bars associated with the casinos.
Rep. Ruth Balser, an opponent of expanded gambling, said that allowing casinos and a slots parlor in Massachusetts is a big mistake and will target those who can ill afford to gamble away their paychecks.
"We know that crime will increase. We know that homelessness will increase. We know that incarceration will increase," said Balser, D-Newton. "This is the wrong direction for Massachusetts."
The final bill includes another Senate amendment that would bar state, county and local officials, including state lawmakers, from working in the casino industry for at least one year after leaving office if those officials were involved with voting on or regulating casinos.
Nearly a quarter of the fees raised are slated for the soon-to-be-created Healthcare Payment Reform Fund, designed to help the state rein in spiraling health care costs and encourage the adoption of electronic medical records.
The rest is split among a variety of funds, including a transportation and infrastructure development fund, a local capital projects fund, a community college fund and manufacturing and tourism funds.
Patrick did express some concerns over the distribution of local aid from gambling revenues and a provision of the bill that would support the horse racing industry.
However, "I don't think any of those are show-stoppers," he said.
Twenty-five percent of casino revenue and 40 percent of slots revenue would be returned to the state and its cities and towns under the bill.
An anti-casino group led by former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger has blasted the job creation estimates as "wildly optimistic" and called the revenue projections outdated because they were based on pre-recession data.
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 exact locations have not yet been determined.
Staff writer Angeljean Chiaramida and Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.