House-Senate panel reaches compromise on casino bill
House and Senate negotiators completed a compromise casino bill last night that kills a controversial proposal that would have allowed happy hours at bars around the state, increases money devoted to propping up 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.
The casino bill has dominated the legislative session this year. By completing their final compromise last night, lawmakers will be able to vote on the bill in time to deliver it to Governor Deval Patrick’s desk by tomorrow, when they are scheduled to recess for the year.
Representative Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and lead negotiator on the six-member committee that resolved the bill, said he expects the House and Senate to take votes today.
Patrick has said he agrees with the major components of the bill, which authorizes three casinos and a slot machine parlor. He negotiated the broad points behind closed doors with top lawmakers earlier this year, before the House and Senate approved similar versions.
Proponents say casinos will create jobs and allow the state to provide more services. Opponents say that the social costs will outweigh the benefits and that the state will lose its historic character.
The compromise filed last night resolved the final issues between the House and Senate, according to state officials who reviewed the plan:
- The one-year cooling-off period applies to all House and Senate members, as well as some local and state officials who have either helped to craft the bill or to negotiate with developers. The Senate had considered a five-year ban, but withdrew the proposal amid an uproar among senators.
- Both the House and Senate had previously agreed to set aside at least 9 percent of annual gambling profits from the slot machine parlor to subsidize the state’s horse racing industry. The compromise adopts language from the House that would take an additional 5 percent of the money from the one-time casino license fees for the horse racing fund, as well as 5 percent of annual taxes collected from casinos for the fund. The result of these changes will mean less money for local aid.
- The compromise bill continues to require developers to gain approval in a local referendum in the city or town where they are proposing a casino. But there is an exception for cities with a population of more than 125,000 people, including Boston. In that case, only a local neighborhood or ward would vote, unless the City Council opts to require a citywide vote.
- The bill removes a Senate provision that would require casinos and their contractors to verify the immigration status of their employees using a federal database known as E-Verify.
- The compromise bill distributes 14 percent of casino revenue to all the state’s school districts, removing a Senate provision that would have put a priority on 165 districts.
- The happy hour provision approved in the Senate drew wide attention, but was taken out of the final bill. It would have allowed bars and restaurants to hold happy hours to compete with casinos’ ability to give out free drinks. But it received some criticism from people who argued that doing so would lead to more deaths and injuries.
If Patrick signs the bill this week, state officials can begin putting together a structure to accept bids from developers and regulate casinos when they return in January. Lawmakers have estimated that a slot parlor could open within a year and that the casinos could be up and running in three to five years.
The bill would require casino developers to pay a licensing fee of at least $85 million and to invest at least $500 million in the facility, which must include a hotel. The slot parlor developer would have to pay $25 million for a license and invest $85 million in the facility.
Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.