Gambling for New England’s $$$

Reports in this morning’s Globe have thrown an interesting twist into the great Massachusetts gambling debate. Namely, citizens of any city or town targeted for a casino will have the opportunity to vote Yay or Nay on the proposition.

Here in Boston, where the question of whether to plop a casino into the city proper has caused a great deal of consternation, the passage of said referendum would be far from a sure thing. In a Globe poll released last week, just 24 percent of respondents said they favored an urban casino. (Granted, those were Massachusetts residents, and not specifically Bostonians.)

There is just one problem: Boston, for all intents and purposes, could be getting a casino whether its citizens like it or not, and the reason has nothing to do with votes and everything to do with geography.

While most of the gambling focus has been on what it means for Massachusetts, the rest of New England has taken a cue from the Bay State and started working toward loosening their own gaming laws.

According to Clyde Barrow, a gambling expert at the Center for Policy Analysis at UMass Dartmouth, Massachusetts’ march toward casinos has spurred Maine toward a referendum on a potentially lucrative new “racino,” Rhode Island toward the possibility of a full blown casino at the Twin River site in Lincoln (which already has racing and slots), and New Hampshire toward legislation that could legalize video slot machines.

“It’s a competition for Massachusetts money,” says Barrow.

Bostonians should take special note of the situation in New Hampshire. A Nevada-based gambling company is angling to install 3,000 video slot machines in Rockingham Park, just a stones (or dice) throw across the border, and less than 45 minutes by car from Boston.

The video slots alone could cut into potential Boston gambling dollars, but the bigger concern could be that if Boston says, ‘No’ to a Foxwoods/Mohegan Sun Style casino, Rockingham Park could one day say, ‘Yes.’

Bostonians could simply go north to throw away their money at the tables and slots, without the Commonwealth drawing in the tax dollars. “In terms of the market they would draw from, I don’t think there’s any difference,” Barrow said. “If we don’t put one in Boston, in effect, Boston could end up with one or two casinos, anyway.”

New Hampshire state Representative William Butynski, a Democrat who sits on the gambling subcommittee, said that video slots are not yet a sure bet and that the legislation could stall until 2008 or 2009 before passing.

Still, the Live Free or Die’ers, unwilling to institute sales or income taxes, are in dire need of funds to bolster their failing education system and Butynski notes gambling is a very convenient way to do that. Recently, a delegation of lawmakers toured Rockingham Park as they continue to study the potential effects of video slots.

And if a casino resort fails in Boston or “points north,” putting one in Rockingham could be more than tempting. “I think certainly some people would look at it that way,” Butynski said.

In other words, referendum or not, when it comes to a Boston casino, the horse isn’t just out of the barn, it has made it all the way to the border.