BOSTON (AP) — The clash over casino gambling in Massachusetts is drawing a torrent of lobbying dollars to Beacon Hill.
The amount spent by firms, unions and interest groups hoping to influence the gambling debate has grown from just more than $800,000 in 2006 to more than $2 million in 2009, according to an Associated Press review of records filed with the secretary of state's office.
The vast majority of the lobbying dollars are being spent by groups hoping to get a piece of the gambling pie if lawmakers ultimately vote to approve an expanded gaming bill.
The surge in lobbying comes as the push for casinos, slot machines or a combination of both nears a critical stage. House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters last week he plans to file a casino bill sometime in the next two to three weeks.
DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said he hopes House lawmakers will take a vote on the bill before beginning their budget debate this spring.
The increase in lobbying dollars spent is matched by a surge in the number of firms and other groups willing to hire their own representatives in Massachusetts to try to influence the debate on Beacon Hill.
In 2006, just 19 firms and groups were registered with the state as having hired lobbyists to represent them on casinos and gaming issues.
In 2009, that number had nearly doubled to 34. They include out-of-state firms such as the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which spent $112,500 on lobbyists in Massachusetts last year, and Harrah's Operating Company Inc., which spent $60,000.
Harrah's, also located in Las Vegas, operates Caesars Palace among other venues.
Sterling Suffolk Racecourse L.L.C., which runs the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston, was among the top-spending firms, having shelled out $336,000 on lobbyists in 2009.
Calls to Las Vegas Sands, Harrah's and Suffolk Downs were not immediately returned.
Some of those lobbying dollars ended up in the coffers of top lawmakers.
Lobbyists working for firms hired by companies and other groups hoping to influence the gambling debate have made thousands in campaign contributions, according to the AP review.
Last year, those lobbyists contributed about $8,000 to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, $8,100 to Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, $7,800 to Senate President Therese Murray and $4,900 to Gov. Deval Patrick.
Spokesmen for the elected officials say it's unfair to characterize all that money as casino lobbying dollars since many of those donations come from lobbyists working for larger firms that have contracts with multiple groups interested in gambling and non-gambling topics.
Besides, they say, the elected officials have all previously staked out their support of expanded gaming.
DeLeo, whose district includes two race tracks, has pushed for slot machines at race tracks for years. Patrick filed a casino bill in 2008 that was rejected by the House. Therese Murray has said she supports casinos as a way to bring more jobs and money into the state.
Patrick aides said the governor also has returned some of the lobbying contributions.
"Campaign donations have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on administration policy," said Steve Crawford, a spokesman for Patrick's political committee.
David Martin, a spokesman DeLeo's campaign committee, said the speaker has been "a longtime and well-known advocate of expanded gaming as a source of new jobs" and follows all guidelines in reporting campaign donations.
David Falcone, a spokesman for Therese Murray, said the lobbyist contributions amount to about 2 percent of all the campaign donations she received in 2009. He also said Murray does not accept donations from anyone who works directly for a casino or gaming organization.
"It has no bearing on how we approach gaming," Falcone said. "The president has been consistent about her preference for destination resort-style casinos."
A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Murray also said there's no connection between the contributions he has received from lobbyists and decisions about public policy.
"Thousands of people have contributed to Tim Murray's campaign, and the decisions he makes are based on the merits of each issue and what is in the best interest of the commonwealth and its people," said campaign spokesman Alec Loftus.
Opponents of expanded gaming in Massachusetts say the amount of lobbying dollars show just how fierce the interest in gaming has become on Beacon Hill.
They also say they won't be swayed simply because they are being outspent.
"(The companies) are spending a lot of money because they have a profit motive," said Kathleen Conley Norbut, president of the anti-gaming group United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts. "We are spending our personal time and resources because the net negatives of casino gambling outweigh the benefits."