Massachusetts may bet on slot machines

A bill to expand gambling at state racetracks passed the Senate last fall. The House takes up the measure April 5.

With Friday night poker games and lottery scratch tickets more popular than ever, opponents of bets and wagers face an uphill battle.

But that hasn't stopped them from fighting a measure to expand gambling in the Bay State. In the fall, the state Senate voted 26-9 in favor of bringing 2,000 slot machines to each of the state's four racetracks; the House is now set to take up the measure April 5. If legalized, Massachusetts would join 11 other states that allow slots at horse or dog racetracks, termed "racinos," according to the American Gaming Association in Washington.

Proponents say the bill, which would direct 60 percent of the tracks' revenue back to the state - would generate $350 million that currently ends up in neighboring state treasuries, help revive the lackluster racing industry, and create more jobs.

Opponents, ranging from church leaders to politicians, say that money spent on gambling merely depletes other parts of the economy; coins slipped into slot machines mean fewer movie tickets or museum passes. And gambling, they add, is basically a tax on the poor: It disproportionately lures those least able to contribute to state coffers.

"This is not good news for the poor in Massachusetts," says Laura Everett, the associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. "The money is not just waiting out there to be scooped up by Massachusetts. Residents will have to lose that money first."

A majority of residents, however, support expanded gambling. A recent Boston Globe poll showed that 53 percent favored legalizing slot machines, while 41 percent opposed them.

Still, advocates may not win approval. Attempts to allow slot machines have failed during the past decade. And even if the Senate passes the measure, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is expected to issue a veto.

Local race tracks say the slots are needed to boost racing, which has been suffering since its heyday in the World War II era. At Suffolk Downs in East Boston, where the legendary horse Seabiscuit raced, supporters say slots could help the track fatten its purses. "When racing operations look at adding machine gaming, it's about preserving racing," says Chip Tuttle, spokesperson for Suffolk Downs.

Critics say that opening slot machines, even at just four venues, paves the way for casinos and other high-stakes betting. State Rep. Daniel Bosley (D) points to the state lottery, which consisted of "a little green ticket with a daily number" when it began here in 1971, he says.

Now it is one of the largest operations in the country. In fiscal year 2005, the lottery posted record-high sales of $4.4 billion, according to the state lottery website. "If we [legalize] these slot machines, we shouldn't be so foolish as to think we can control it," he says.

That wouldn't be so bad, some say, since it would help bring revenue "home." Massachusetts residents spent $889 million in 2005 at two Connecticut casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth study released last week showed.

"Massachusetts gets no tax revenue from money spent in neighboring states," says Mr. Tuttle. "There's no debate on that."

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