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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - It is destined to become one of the most powerful, most closely scrutinized agencies in Massachusetts government – but as it held its first meeting Tuesday, the new Massachusetts Gaming Commission was taking baby steps like ordering phones and computers and recruiting consultants to help plan for $2 billion worth of gambling parlors.
"We have so many things to do, and so many pieces of this puzzle to fit together, that we really need some help," said Commissioner James F. McHugh, a retired state superior and appeals court judge.
"This is a tough, tough business, the gaming business, with a lot of controversies, a lot of pitfalls," said board chair Stephen Crosby, a former top budget aide to Governor A. Paul Cellucci and Acting Governor Jane M. Swift.
The commission is charged with setting up a process for awarding up to three casino licenses and a license for a slot-machines-only facility, with the casinos requiring a minimum investment of $500 million, and staffing up a powerful 150-person agency that will be smart enough – and tough enough – to keep out organized crime and worse as the state embraces high-stakes gambling. The commission repeatedly vowed to be as transparent and fair as possible in its proceedings.
In its official business, after hearing presentations from both firms, the board voted to authorize Crosby to negotiate consulting contracts with two New Jersey-based firms with extensive experience advising governments on gambling regulation, Spectrum Gaming Corp. and the law firm of Michael & Carroll, whose business partners include former Massachusetts public safety secretary and Metropolitan Police chief Kathleen O’Toole.
Commissioner Gayle Cameron, a former New Jersey State Police lieutenant colonel, recused herself from the discussion and vote because she knows people at both firms and wanted to avoid any “appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Commissioners also voted to retain law firm Anderson & Krieger of Cambridge for ethics guidelines and legal work.
Jennifer Baruffaldi of Citizens for Jobs & Growth in Palmer, a group promoting plans for a casino next to Exit 8 of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the western Massachusetts community, came to Boston to attend the meeting, held at the University of Massachusetts, and liked what she saw.
"I do admire the fact that they are being transparent. I can see that watching them up there," Baruffaldi said, adding that "it seems that they are doing their due diligence."
In a prepared handout, the commission stressed, with italics, that it sees its responsibility as licensing “up to” three casinos, not necessarily all three in all three zones, and said it might opt for a process of licensing them one at a time in succession, rather than two or three at once.
The commission said it expects to issue requests for proposals for the casinos and slots parlor not before 2013, and sees "fully operating resort casinos" in operating sometime between the spring of 2015 and the spring of 2017. The state faces a July 31 deadline for Governor Deval L. Patrick and legislators to approve a "compact" awarding the southeastern Massachusetts gambling license to a Wampanoag Indian tribe. If such a deal is not in hand, then the license would be opened up to non-Wampanoag bidders.
Notably, the commission voted to approve a one-year lease Crosby had signed for office space at 84 State Street in Boston that would accommodate up to 30 employees for the Gaming Commission. While the agency ultimately is likely to employ 100 to 150 people, Crosby said he doesn’t envision having vetted and hired more than 30 of those staff by 12 months from now – one of many indications he and other commissioners gave that they consider it more important to proceed cautiously and carefully, not rush to get casinos up and running and collecting the 49 percent state tax on their gaming profits the law provides.
Crosby described the commission walking a fine line between being a watchdog, and a Welcome Wagon, as it takes on the responsibility of bringing to life a new industry for Massachusetts that political leaders spent years debating before finally approving last autumn.
"We have to find a really careful balance where we can get every penny and every item of mitigation as we can possibly get," Crosby said, from gambling facilities to compensate for the potential social impacts, gambling addiction, traffic, and crime they bring to areas that host casinos.
At the same time, Crosby said, his message to multinational gambling giants is: "We want you to come here, we want you to be successful, and to the extent that it's consistent with our regulatory role, we will collaborate with you to try to make that happen."
With videographer David Jacobs.