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Amid State House shift, odds of casinos in Mass. improving

Associated Press | 2/4/2009, 4:59 a.m.

The odds of Massachusetts rolling the dice on expanded gambling — whether slot machines, full-blown casinos, or both — are getting better by the day.

The election of Robert DeLeo as the speaker of the Massachusetts House last week breathed new life into a debate that seemed all but dead just weeks earlier. But that was before former Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, the main foe of casino gambling on Beacon Hill, suddenly resigned under an ethics cloud.

While DeLeo voted with DiMasi last year to kill Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to license three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts, he’s never voiced the same level of opposition as DiMasi, who warned of fostering a “casino culture” in the state.

In 2006, DeLeo broke with DiMasi and voted in favor of a plan to allow 2,000 slot machines at each of the state’s racetracks. DeLeo’s district includes two racetracks — Wonderland Greyhound Park and Suffolk Downs.

DeLeo has said as speaker he won’t limit himself to just considering slots, saying that casinos are also now “in play” under his leadership in the House.

“I’ve always been a proponent relative to maybe slots at racetracks,” DeLeo said in an interview on WBZ-TV broadcast Sunday. “Having said that, I’m very open to a discussion relative to casinos. Whether I embrace it or not, we’ll see, but I’m open to any discussion relative to expanded gambling to bring in additional revenue.”

About a half-dozen gambling-related bills have already been filed in the House for the new session, including one designed to allow the state’s four racetracks to install slot machines and another seeking to revive Patrick’s three-casino plan.

Patrick has been generally circumspect about casino gambling after his plan was squashed in the House last year. Whether he would regain his enthusiasm if the House took a more active interest remains to be seen, although he appeared to enjoy the prospect of a new House leader last week when he met with DeLeo and DeLeo’s defeated rival for the top spot in the House, Majority Leader John Rogers.

“I like slots at the racetracks,” DeLeo told Patrick before a clutch of reporters and television cameras.

“Let the games begin,” Patrick joked.

Those pushing for expanded gambling are no strangers to Beacon Hill — and the debate began well before Patrick unveiled his three-casino plan.

Wonderland owner Charles Sarkis has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to state lawmakers over the past decade, including contributions to DeLeo, DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray, according to state campaign finance records. Managers and executives at Suffolk Downs and the Raynham Greyhound Park have also contributed heavily to lawmakers and Patrick.

The parks have long sought state permission to install slot machines — something they have argued was crucial to their future.

That request takes on even more urgency in the case of Wonderland and Raynham. A ballot question approved by voters in November ends dog racing in Massachusetts at the end of the year.

There have also been vocal critics of expanded gambling in Massachusetts besides DiMasi.