Who Will Decide if a Casino Comes to Town?

The rushed vote by Massachusetts lawmakers approving a final casino bill Tuesday comes after a six-member conference committee merged separate House and Senate versions of the measure. The conference committee had to iron out several differences between the two versions of the bill. Those include the system by which municipalities can decide whether they want to host a casino.

The final bill licenses up to three resort-style casinos and a single slots parlor in Massachusetts. That would allow for one casino in Western Massachusetts. One amendment in the final version of the bill says that all municipalities with populations of fewer than 125 thousand residents would vote on the presence of a casino.

But in cities such as Boston, Worcester and Springfield, with more than 125 thousand residents, there are a couple of possibilities. As the bill stands, the individual ward in which a casino is proposed would get to vote on whether to host a casino. But the city council could vote to hold a city-wide referendum.

"A city the size of Springfield should have the ward decide whether or not they want a casino."

Michael Fenton is a Springfield City Councilor representing Ward 2, where Penn National Gaming has been eyeing a parcel of land. He says he's not necessarily in favor of a casino coming to his neighborhood, but he's open to the idea. And he anticipates the city council will debate ward vs. citywide vote on a casino.

"The impacts that a casino would have on a specific neighborhood are going to be much more significant in the location where the casino is going to be located rather than on the other side of the city. However I do know that some of my colleagues do disagree with that."

A spokesman for Penn National Gaming says the company hasn't settled on a community in Western Mass and so has not yet voiced a preference for a ward or citywide vote. Another casino developer – the Hard Rock chain of casinos and restaurant/cafe's – is eyeing Holyoke.

The final bill increases money devoted to supporting the state’s horse racing industry, and requires state officials involved in creating the gambling bill to wait a year after they leave government before accepting a job in the casino industry. Opponents say casinos will add to the state's social ills, including gambling addiction, crime and divorce. An Associated Press review of records filed with the secretary of state's office found gambling interests spent $1.35 million in the first six months of the year lobbying Beacon Hill lawmakers. Governor Deval Patrick says he's still reviewing the bill, but it appears to be something he could support.