08/01/2010 11:48AM

Fate of expanded gambling in Massachusetts rests with governor

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A key word change and dramatic political brinksmanship appear to have paved the way for expanded gaming in Massachusetts although the state's four racetracks are still at risk of being shut out.


In the shadow of a midnight deadline, legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill Saturday allowing three resort casinos and two slot parlors open to bidding by the state's four racetracks. The bill was championed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, whose district covers Suffolk Downs and Wonderland Greyhound Park and whose father worked at Suffolk's Turf Club. But Gov. Deval Patrick is opposed to those two racinos and apparently doomed the legislation by promising a veto and amending it to allow only one slot parlor.


However, careful examination of the way the bill was written gives the governor the power to control the board that would grant the track licenses. Through that control – which derives from the use of the word “may” instead of “shall” in a key part of the law – Patrick could ignore the legislature's wishes and issue as many racino licenses as he wants.


The governor now has 10 days to act on the bill. If he vetoes, the legislature would need to return for an informal special session to attempt to override. The State Senate was two votes shy of a veto-proof two-thirds majority and won't be called back to Boston. It was unclear what the governor would do in light of the wording discovery.


Late Saturday evening, DeLeo, with about 100 House and Senate members behind him, angrily denounced the governor in a press conference and promised to call the House into special session.


Suffolk Downs, the state's only Thoroughbred track, has plans to bid on any available slots licenses - resort casinos or a racetrack parlor. Majority owner Richard Fields successfully developed casinos in Florida prior to buying into the East Boston track. Suffolk also has a partnership agreement in place with neighboring Wonderland, so the former greyhound park would not have competed with Suffolk for the limited licenses the legislation would have offered.


Racinos have been the main contention throughout the debate. DeLeo's original plan guaranteed the state's four tracks, including Plainridge Racecourse and Raynham Greyhound Park, slots licenses. Gov. Patrick has been opposed to racinos even when his own casino plan was defeated three years ago, but he did compromise earlier this week by signaling he could stomach one competitively bid slot parlor in exchange for the three resort casinos as well as action on several other bills held up in the legislature by the casino debate. If he signs the bill with the current language the tracks will have to compete against well-backed casino interests as well as each other without guarantees.
Laws renewing simulcasting rights were pulled from the casino bill Saturday and passed, so there will be no disruption to current business at the tracks regardless of the casino decisions.