An Even Hand: This Year’s State House Hearing on Casinos is more Subdued

By John Lynds

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Suffolk Downs’ Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle (center) during last week’s hearing.

It was a more subdued hearing than last year when hundreds of people both for and against legalizing casino gaming in Massachusetts descended upon the State House to enter their testimony on the record.

This time around, the hearing room was half filled as the debate over whether to authorize gaming dragged on for nearly eight hours. The lack of interest this time around could be a sign many in the state as well as a majority of state lawmakers  have already made up their minds on the issue that came close to passing last year.

Unlike last year, state lawmakers mostly stayed away from testifying aside from a handful and the passion both for and against seemed to vanish as both sides went through the motions of entering testimony and making the pitch for a second time that gaming will either save the fiscally strapped state or send it into moral ruin.

However, one thing is clear expanded gaming or full-scale resort-style casinos in the Commonwealth are not going to be as epidemic as crack was in the 1980s as some suggested at last week’s public hearing at the State House.

However, it is also not going to solve all of the state’s fiscal woes as others would suggest.

Somewhere in the middle is where the truth lies.

While testimony came from all sides and angles last week, all eyes in East Boston were focused on the testimony of Suffolk Downs Racetrack Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle.

The famed local horse racing venue has long desired expanding gaming as a way to sure up its struggling thoroughbred industry and hopes to file for one of three gaming licenses if one of several compromise bills to Governor Deval Patrick’s bill last year to legalize resort-style casinos in the state is approved by the legislature.

But before Suffolk Downs is given ‘permission to print money’ as some would put it, the racetrack and its ownership team led by Richard Fields would have to concede to some hefty mitigation that would include solid job creation and roadway and infrastructure improvements.

At last week’s testimony, Tuttle began another round of convincing some nay-sayers in the legislature that the racetrack is not only interested in a gaming license but is willing to create local jobs and improve infrastructure surrounding the track.

“We propose to invest hundreds of millions to immediately create thousands of construction jobs and thousands of permanent jobs while improving our existing racing operation, enhancing the area’s tourism economy and providing much-needed support for local traffic and transportation infrastructure upgrades,” said Tuttle last week.

Unlike his testimony last year which included the moral obligations Suffolk Downs would have if it was allowed to open a casino, Tuttle’s testimony this time focused primarily on job creation and job preservation.

“A 2007 analysis showed Suffolk Downs generating 2,300 jobs in the horse racing industry and related agribusiness throughout the state. This includes over 1,000 at the track itself, including our direct employees – mutual clerks, maintenance workers, restaurant, cleaning, security and administrative personnel — as well as the owners, trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, grooms, vets, blacksmiths and stable hands licensed by the state of Massachusetts who care for our horses and work at farms throughout the state where our horses are bred, raised and boarded,” said Tuttle. “There are currently 18 registered Thoroughbred breeding farms in Massachusetts. We believe that number could double over the next few years as we improve our purses and racing operations, extending the benefits of expanded gaming to the agricultural sector of the Massachusetts economy.”

Tuttle added that unlike other parts of the state where this type of development may not be popular he believes a casino here would be welcomed as a boost to the local economy and job creation.

“As an existing gaming destination with a 75-year track record as a good neighbor and an employer of thousands through the years, gaming development at Suffolk Downs is welcomed by our local communities – communities like East Boston, Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop and Everett whose residents have been hit hard by the scarcity of good jobs with good benefits,” said Tuttle.

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