Casino 'medicine': Panel debates whether gaming is right cure for Mass.

Tom Benner

Tim Cahill became the first state treasurer in the 35-year history of the Lottery to call for legalizing casinos because, he says, they are inevitable.

The fact that Massachusetts residents gamble away millions of dollars at Connecticut and Rhode Island casinos, that the Lottery is less popular among younger players, and that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe won federal recognition in May convinced Cahill that casinos are coming.

``I don't think we can put our heads in the sand about it,'' Cahill said Tuesday at a forum on casino gambling, one day after Gov. Deval Patrick proposed allowing three casinos in separate parts of the state. ``There's a way to do it which will minimize negative impacts, maximize the revenue and positive impacts, and ... complement the Lottery.''

With residents already spending an average of more than $600 a year on the Lottery, sales are flat, with a marked decline in interest among younger players.

Cahill, whose duties as treasurer include overseeing the Braintree-based Lottery, made his comments at a MassINC forum in Boston at which he frequently clashed with state Rep. Daniel Bosley, who is leading the charge in the House of Representatives against expanded gambling.

Bosley, a North Adams Democrat, noted that the state created the Lottery in 1972 as a way to raise money for schools and other local government functions.

``That was going to pay for education in the commonwealth,'' Bosley said. ``We'd never have to worry about paying for education again.''

Bosley said the state government's hunger for revenues led to today's huge variety of Lottery games.

``I think the Lottery is an excellent cautionary tale as to why we shouldn't get into casinos,'' Bosley said. ``The same thing will happen with casinos, and it's happened in every other state (with casinos).''

Bosley argues that casinos will place strains on police and other municipal services and increase social costs such as gambling addition, substance abuse and personal bankruptcy. The revenues, he says, will come at the expense of restaurants, hotels, and other existing tourist destinations. ``A lot of that money is economic transfer,'' he said. ``It's already money that is spent in the economy, it's just transferred to the casino.''

A third panelist at the forum, Boston College economics professor Father Richard McGowan, countered that casinos will draw new dollars into the state's economy. But he likened a new reliance on casinos for revenues to a medical patient switching to a potentially stronger medicine.

``Once you're on that medicine, you can't get off it,'' McGowan said. ``And we're on it already with lotteries. What it comes down to right now is, do you want to change medicine?''

Cahill said both the Lottery and casinos can play an important role in contributing to the state budget, now at $26 billion. The Lottery added about $950 million to state coffers in the 2006 fiscal year, with about $760 million going out to cities and towns, while casinos will net about $400 million to $500 million for three casinos, he said.

Cahill said casinos are a more acceptable way to raise money than new highway tolls or a higher gas tax, two proposals to help the state pay for needed road and bridge repairs.

``We have to diversify where we get our money,'' Cahill said. ``We cannot continue to go back to the taxpayers and say, give us more.''

But Bosley says the state should focus on encouraging what he considers more stable industries, such as life sciences, information technology, defense manufacturing and film production. He also counters that Massachusetts has a lower tax burden than Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey - three states with casino gambling.

``It hasn't solved (budget) problems,'' Bosley said. ``We've been set up with a false premise - you either have to do this, or you have to do that.''

Cahill proposes giving a large portion of casino revenues to cities and towns to help pay for schools, public safety and infrastructure. He faulted the proposed Wampanoag casino in Middleboro as not benefiting the town's neighbors.

``It took care of Middleboro, but it ignored Carver, it ignored Plympton, it ignored Plymouth,'' Cahill said. ``I understand why they couldn't negotiate with everyone, but that's why the state has to take control of this, so that we can look out for the interest of all the people of Massachusetts.''

But Bosley said House members - who must sign off on any casino plan - still feel expanded gambling will create too many new and costly problems. ``From 1996 until last year, every time we voted on casinos, or slots at the racetracks, or some form of gambling, the opposition has grown in the House,'' he said. ``

Tom Benner of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at tbenner@ledger.com.