- Associated Press - Sunday, June 1, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - Before the legislature breaks for summer, Massachusetts’ top gambling regulator wants lawmakers to address parts of the 2011 casino law dealing with hiring and income tax collection.

But a leading lawmaker says the Democratic majority is not yet committed to approving the recommended changes in time for July’s expected end of the legislative session.

Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby says the casino law’s hiring provision should be amended before January, when Penn National Gaming is set to begin hiring new workers for its slot parlor at the Plainridge harness racing track in Plainville.

Crosby said the law’s income tax requirements for gamblers could discourage prospective developers and make Massachusetts less competitive to its neighbors.

He pointed to concerns voiced by Wynn Resorts, which proposes a nearly $1.6 billion casino in Everett, and others.

“Some of the operators have said they would not go forward if that does not change,” Crosby said. “If the legislature chooses to address it, it would be better to do it soon.”

State Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat that co-chairs the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, which handles casino-related proposals, said Democratic leaders received the gaming commission’s concerns last week and are weighing their next move.

“We’ll see, given the short time frame, whether it materializes this year,” he said. “But the reality that a license has already been awarded is cause for us to look at the issue sooner rather than later.”

Wagner added that he supports addressing the income tax issue and remains “open to discussions” about amending the law’s hiring provision.

In a May 20 memorandum to Gov. Deval Patrick and leading lawmakers, the gaming commission recommended raising the threshold for collecting state income tax withholding from the current $600 or more in gambling winnings to $1,200.

That would bring Massachusetts in line with the federal income tax withholding threshold and match a standard used in neighboring states.

The commission also called for lawmakers to allow discretion in the hiring of casino employees with criminal records.

Specifically, it is concerned about a provision that automatically disqualifies those convicted of “a felony or other crime involving embezzlement, theft, fraud or perjury” from being employed at gambling establishments, no matter how old the crime.

The commission says the provision could be a barrier to providing jobs to chronically underemployed people, which is a priority of the casino law.

“Obviously, you’re going to have automatic disqualifications for people that work in the (casino) pit - the dealers and the other people that will be handling money,” Crosby, the commission chairman, said this week. “But if you’re working in a hotel or a restaurant, we feel that an automatic disqualification is too rigorous.”

The two recommendations come after gambling operators requested a wide range of changes to the casino law.

The commission ultimately declined to recommend many of those suggestions; some they said could be addressed through administrative-level regulations and rules.

Both Wynn and MGM Resorts, for example, wanted guarantees that the state’s 25 percent tax on gross gambling revenues would not change during the 15-year licensing period.

They also sought financial protections in case an Indian tribe-owned casino opens in Massachusetts, as well as relief from fees and other upfront costs if the casino law is repealed.

The state’s highest court is expected to rule by July on whether a referendum to repeal the law should be allowed on the November ballot.

MGM, which proposes an $800 million casino in Springfield, has stressed that the suggested changes are not critical to their bid for a casino license.

And Mohegan Sun, which proposes a more than $1 billion casino on the Revere side of the Suffolk Downs horse-racing track, has said it will abide by the casino law as written.

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