10/14/2011 1:24PM

Massachusetts Senate passes casino/slots bill

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The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved a bill allowing for three casinos and one slots parlor in the state, setting the stage for Suffolk Downs to bid on a license reserved for the Boston area.

The Senate bill, which was approved by a vote of 24-14, is similar to a bill that passed overwhelmingly in the House in September, aside from some minor differences that are expected to be ironed out in conference before being sent to Gov. Deval Patrick, who supports the legislation.

While the legislation fast-tracks Suffolk’s plans to become one of the state’s four casino operators, both the House and Senate bills provide subsidies for the horse racing industry only from the slots parlor, underscoring how political leaders are increasingly skeptical of diverting casino revenue to racing in an increasingly competitive gambling environment in the Northeast. The House bill dedicates 9 percent of the gross profits from the slot parlor to racing subsidies, while the Senate bill provides 15 percent, a difference that will have to be worked out in conference committee.

Bruce Patten, the executive director of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said on Friday that there is little political will in Massachusetts to set aside revenue from the three casinos to racing. If Suffolk Downs opens a casino, the track would be the only racing facility in the United States with a casino that does not use gambling revenue to subsidize racing at its own track.

“We just haven’t been able to make any progress with them,” Patten said. “We don’t see it happening.”

Patten said that horsemen have estimated that subsidies from a slots parlor with the maximum amount of machines, 1,250, would amount to $6.4 million, roughly 75 percent of what Suffolk Downs will distribute during an 80-day meet this year.

Suffolk officials did not immediately return phone calls on Friday.

Supporters of casinos, including Suffolk Downs, have lobbied aggressively over the past four years for legislation that expands gambling in the state. Opposition to legislation eroded this year after the departure of several prominent anti-gambling proponents from the legislature in 2010.

Earlier this year, Suffolk struck an agreement with Caesars World to develop jointly a casino at the track in a bid to bolster its credentials as a casino operator. The track was purchased in 2007 by Richard Fields, a casino operator, rancher, and Thoroughbred owner.

Under the Senate legislation, each full casino license will require an $85 million fee paid to the state, while the slots parlor would require a $25 million licensing fee.