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Domino effect of gambling roils New England

In the warmest climate yet, Massachusetts once again debates allowingcasinos in Puritan state.

If you build it, they will stay. Forget the field of dreams and think casinos. If our state doesn't have them and our neighbor does, so the mantra goes, home-grown gamblers will keep opening their wallets - and stuffing the tax coffers - across the border.

That's the message facing Massachusetts lawmakers as they weigh whether to allow casinos, slot machines, and video gambling. With Connecticut's two lucrative casinos planning to expand and New Hampshire and Rhode Island both considering new gambling options, some formerly strong opponents in the Bay State appear willing to be persuaded.

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Michigan, for example, was the most recent state to approve casinos. It did so after watching a steady stream of people cross the border to gamble at a nearby casino in Canada. A recent study valued Massachusetts residents' trips to Connecticut casinos at $620 million.

But the argument goes beyond the economic practicalities of keeping up with the Joneses. In the most receptive climate yet for gambling in Massachusetts, rhetorical swords are being sharpened for a battle over the direction of a region.

New England pride

When the subject is casinos, there's a sense that "this is a departure from the kind of high ground that this region has always liked to pride itself on assuming," says Joseph Conforti, director of American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

This moralistic tradition, rooted not just in Puritanism but in the reform era of the 19th century, is especially pronounced in Massachusetts. But it comes up against another strain, most visible in New Hampshire: the libertarian idea "that people should be free of the kinds of moral restraints on their individual choices," Mr. Conforti explains.

These two attitudes clashed last week during a hearing at the State House in Boston. Sen. Susan Tucker testified that expanding gambling would be perverse because it is "the fastest growing addiction among our youth." When she thinks of Massachusetts, Senator Tucker said, she thinks of the world-class hospitals, educational institutions, and the state's natural beauty. "I don't see billboards advertising 'Five miles to the next casino.' "

On the other side was Rep. Evelyn Chesky from Holyoke, one of three cities that would host casinos under a bill proposed by Sen. James Jajuga. "I strongly believe that gambling is as much a part of Americana as baseball," Representative Chesky said. If government is going to be moralistic, it might as well ban alcohol, cigarettes, and even credit cards, she said.

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The moral arguments didn't go far with residents of Salisbury, either. A busload came down from the coastal town that borders New Hampshire (in Senator Jajuga's district) to show support for a casino and hotel complex on their beach.

Gil Bonk remembers the days when Nat King Cole performed there. "The steak is gone ... but we still have the sizzle," said Mr. Bonk, who lives a mile from the beach.

Salisbury already has roads and parking, Bonk said, and a casino would attract crowds to the beach again. As for addicted gamblers, he said, they will always find somewhere to spend their money.

But addiction is one of the main concerns for gambling opponents. A new report says that more than 5 million Americans are either problem or pathological gamblers. And people who live within 50 miles of a casino are about twice as likely to fall into these categories.

Addiction treatment

Included in Jajuga's bill is a small percentage of revenues for preventing and treating problem gambling. Kathy Scanlan, director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, says she has not yet seen any serious plan to treat the problem comprehensively. But casino gambling is not the only form that can swell the ranks of addiction. Many people started having problems when scratch-cards were added to the lottery, Ms. Scanlan says.

That is exactly Jajuga's point: Disapproval of casinos is hypocritical, he contends, because preventing young people from entering is a lot easier than stopping them from playing state-sanctioned lottery games available at corner stores.

But lotteries, currently run by 37 states, have long been associated with worthy public projects. Lotteries existed in all 13 original colonies and participation was seen as a civic duty. And today, most lottery revenues are still tied to specific programs such as education, prison-building, and aid to senior citizens.

How much these revenues actually boost funding for such programs is increasingly a question among lawmakers and still needs to be researched, says Laura Loyacono of the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Despite the cautionary atmosphere, "the rationale that wins the day is reclaiming revenue," says professor Richard McGowan, who has written about gambling.

Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) says the state's economy is strong and there is no need for casinos in Massachusetts. But the political signals here have been mixed.

The current attorney general is opposed to casinos, but not as strongly as his predecessor. House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who led a decisive defeat of a casino proposal two years ago, has said recently that if New Hampshire expands gambling, it may be time for Massachusetts to follow suit. But he appointed a strong casino opponent to head the committee considering the proposals.

The various moral arguments against gambling may be perceived as self-righteousness, says Conforti. But, he adds, these arguments are powerful because they are "drawing on a wellspring of history and tradition."

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