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Haverhill

July 1, 2014

Budget gambles on 'phantom' casino revenues

BOSTON — Lawmakers approved a $36.5 billion state budget that relies on $73 million in casino revenues that could evaporate if voters repeal the state’s casino gambling law come November.

The budget, passed by the Senate and House of Representatives on Monday, hours before a midnight deadline, increases spending for local aid, transportation, health programs, housing and education. Those initiatives are funded in part by $53 million in license fees expected from casino developers and $20 million in slot revenue.

But that money could disappear if voters repeal the casino gambling law, as they will be asked to do in a ballot question Nov. 4.

“At a time when trust in the Legislature is at all-time lows, you’d think legislative leaders would have more smarts than to balance the state budget on money they know full well might not exist in a few months,” said John Ribeiro, chairman of group Repeal the Casino Deal, in a statement. “It’s time for the Legislature to not compound their mistakes on government-sponsored casinos and do the right thing by not relying on this phantom revenue.”

Sen. Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the casino money was added to Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget long before the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling last week that cleared the way for the referendum on the November ballot. Brewer, D-Barre, said lawmakers are “following the developments” on the referendum.

“We’re prepared for contingencies,” he said. “If the repeal is approved, we will address that.”

Brewer said lawmakers used “conservative” revenue estimates for the final budget. He suggested the state might not even need the casino money if there’s an uptick in the economy or tax revenue.

“And that’s entirely possible,” he said.

Casino operators and supporters are gearing up for what’s expected to be an expensive campaign to convince voters to keep gambling in the state ahead of the Nov. 4 referendum. But they are also awaiting the outcome of the vote before making multimillion-dollar investments that could be dashed if the vote doesn’t go their way.

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