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Departure of DiMasi could improve odds for casino plans

Sal Di MasiThe sudden departure of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi removes the state's chief opponent of casino gambling and could jolt the issue back to life on Beacon Hill.

But just because casinos may be politically possible in the near future doesn't mean they will become reality any time soon. The recession has hit the gambling industry hard, slicing into profits and forcing layoffs at some casinos, making the prospect of developing new ones in Massachusetts far less enticing than it was a year ago. Developers appear wary of launching new ventures, and some are not seeing a clear path to profitable gambling in Massachusetts.

"I think the change in speaker makes it an interesting discussion and potentially something that makes it a major development but, as we sit here today, I think it's premature to say the casino industry is poised to flood the borders," said Dennis Murphy, a former state legislator who was has lobbied on Beacon Hill for Donald Trump.

DiMasi was widely seen as the main road block to Governor Deval Patrick's plan to license three resort casinos last year. While Patrick said three casinos would produce $450 million in revenue, 20,000 jobs, and $2 billion in economic activity, DiMasi derided those figures as inflated and warned of importing a "casino culture" of compulsive gambling and crime. Last March, he led the House in defeating the plan, 108 to 46.

In announcing Sunday that he would resign, DiMasi blamed "powerful special interests," particularly the gambling industry, for fueling the ethics investigations swirling around him, and predicted that gambling interests would cheer his departure. "I can hear the clanking of the slot machines now," he said.

Indeed, a shift seems inevitable. Both of DiMasi's potential successors, Representatives John H. Rogers and Robert A. DeLeo, have signaled their openness to expanded gambling in Massachusetts, and lobbyists and lawmakers who support casinos are hopeful that the issue could move forward.

"I have an open mind on this issue," Rogers said in an interview. "I'm a little more flexible [than DiMasi]. His mind was made up. My mind is more open. I don't want to influence debate."

DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat who appeared to have an edge over Rogers in the fight for the speakership, "is open to looking at future gaming proposals," said Seth Gitell, a DeLeo spokesman.

DeLeo's district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland Greyhound Park, and he has long fought to legalize slot machines to help slumping racetracks. Track owners were hopeful yesterday that a new era had begun.

"It gives us an opportunity to at least get a vote on the House floor" on slot machines, said George Carney, owner of the Raynham Park greyhound dog track. "I always felt before that if we could get it to a vote, we could win," he said. "But we couldn't get it to a vote. It was just one of those things, [DiMasi] was adamantly opposed to and, in his position of power, they can do pretty much what they want."
Much of the debate may hinge on Patrick, who has been reluctant to push for casinos since his plan was defeated. Yesterday, he seemed to be sorting through the future of the issue in a shifting political landscape.

"The speaker was clear about his views last year, I'm clear about mine. But it's not on or off the table," Patrick said yesterday. "You know what's changed, or what's about to change. But whether that's enough to assure its passage, I don't know."

"We're talking about it," Patrick said of casinos. "We've been talking about it with the speaker and with the senate president and whether it makes sense and whether it's appropriate. And we'll do that with the speaker's successor."

No matter the political shifts at the State House, the casino industry is hurting. In Rhode Island, Twin River Casino, the state's third largest source of revenue, is in such dire shape that lawmakers are considering a state buyout. Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut laid off about 700 casino workers in October. Revenues at Mohegan Sun are also slumping. "Right now, there's no doubt about it: with the fact that DiMasi is going, casino gambling has a real life," said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College economist who studies gambling. "Now, how soon it's going to happen - good question. And, clearly, it is not going to be the solution to the budget deficit" because casinos are generating much less revenue than they were a year ago.

"I think DiMasi leaving certainly changes the dynamic about casino gambling, about the prospects of it happening," said Michael J. McCormack, a lobbyist for Scientific Games, which makes video slot machines. "Sal was always Horatius at the bridge - it just wasn't going to happen when he was there."

Gambling opponents sought to downplay the significance of DiMasi's exit.

Laura Everett, associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which lobbied vigorously against gambling, said "certainly DiMasi's leadership was greatly valued, as was the rest of his leadership team." But, noting that 108 representatives voted to kill Patrick's casino plan in March, she expressed confidence that the opposition would outlast DiMasi's tenure.

"We are very optimistic that the opposition will remain to casino gambling because it would certainly have a tremendously negative impact on the state," said Kristian M. Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes gambling. "This is not the time to be fleecing our citizens of their hard-earned dollars."