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Casinos, online poker get state attention

By Pamela M. Prah,

WASHINGTON — Football fans in New England and Miami could go from the stadium straight to a slot machine next door if plans to launch large, destination-resort casinos pan out in Massachusetts and Florida.

The Massachusetts and Florida schemes are part of a nationwide gambling expansion that has affected more than a dozen states in the past three years. But states aren’t just looking to add more casinos and slots. Many of them are eyeing the billions of dollars that Americans bet online illegally every year. Nevada, for example, is preparing for the possibility that Congress might change the laws that ban most Americans from legal online betting.

Any way you look at it, state-sanctioned gambling is only getting bigger. The crucial question, though, is whether more gambling will lead to increased revenues for all the state governments that authorize it.

“State and regional gambling markets are close to reaching saturation,” warned Lucy Dadayan of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a specialist in state gambling revenues.

All states except Hawaii and Utah collect revenue from lotteries, casinos and/or betting at horse tracks, totaling a combined $24 billion in 2010. But some states are much more reliant on this activity than others. For Nevada, gambling revenue represents a third of state general funds. It’s also the third-largest revenue source in Rhode Island and the fifth-largest in Connecticut, according to some estimates.

Massachusetts is hoping for a big payout now that the legislature has legalized three resort casinos and one slots facility, becoming the 40th state to offer slot machines.

Gov. Deval Patrick finally got the resort-style casinos that he has been promoting since he was first elected in 2006. One idea from the owner of the New England Patriots football team is to open a casino complex near the team’s stadium. But that would need approval from the local community and the National Football League, both of which are doubtful, said Clyde W. Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Much farther south, the Miami Dolphins earlier this fall floated the idea of leasing land near their football stadium to a casino developer. An even bigger proposal has come from a Malaysian company that wants to build what some are saying would be the world’s largest casino on the Miami waterfront.

But bringing resort-style private casinos to Florida has many opponents, including The Walt Disney Co., which worries that casinos might conflict with Florida’s reputation as a family-friendly vacation spot. Another opponent is the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which currently has a monopoly on legal casinos in the state, operating Hard Rock Casinos in the cities of Tampa and Hollywood, among others.

The Seneca Nation of Indians likewise plans to fight New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for bringing legalized private casinos to the state as part of his plan to create jobs there. The Seneca tribe currently has exclusive gambling rights in western New York, with casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

New casinos are not the only kind of gambling expansion on states’ radar screens. There also is a growing interest in Internet gambling on two fronts.

In many states, this involves heightened scrutiny of what is currently going on. Among the most prominent targets are the “Internet cafes” that offer online “sweepstakes” with cash awards. States are investigating whether these operations are really illegal, untaxed gambling parlors. Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia this year approved laws or new regulations specifically banning this type of activity at Internet cafes.

In Ohio, which is to open four casinos in 2012, the attorney general has lent his support to legislation that would regulate gaming at Internet cafes and make it subject to oversight.

More significant than the sweepstakes phenomenon, however, is the much-larger world of online gaming and “remote” gambling, which essentially is any gambling in which a person does not need to be physically present. This includes websites, cellphones and text messages.


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