With Milford apparently in competition to host a Massachusetts casino, officials say they'll be watching closely as the gambling debate heats up this week on Beacon Hill.


PDF: How will the gaming hearing run?

With Milford apparently in competition to host a Massachusetts casino, officials say they'll be watching closely as the gambling debate heats up this week on Beacon Hill.


The Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, co-chaired by Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, meets Thursday to decide whether to roll the dice on introducing resort casinos to the state.


This marks the real renewal of debate after Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal to license three Foxwoods-type destinations fizzled in a House vote in 2008.


With 16 bills on the table and support seemingly building among lawmakers, Spilka's committee could re-draft gambling legislation that would be sent to the separate Ways and Means committees for review. If there's support, a casino bill is could go to the full House and Senate for a vote next year.


"It still has quite a ways to go before anyone gets too serious about Milford or any other place," said Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge.


The hearing in the Gardner Auditorium at the State House, which starts at 10 a.m. Thursday, will give casino backers and opponents the chance to be heard.


PDF: How will the gaming hearing run?


"I expect the hearing to be packed, probably, if it's anything like what happened last year at the hearing," said Spilka, who represents Ashland, Hopkinton, Holliston, Framingham, Franklin and Medway.


"I feel my role is to listen, ask questions and get clarification from those testifying if I have questions," she said.


Moore, whose district includes Milford, said it's impossible to predict the town's odds of hosting a big resort casino. The idea for the Crossroads project was pitched to Milford selectmen last week by casino developers Bill Warner from Las Vegas and David Nunes from Colorado.


"I think there's an awful lot of 'ifs' to be resolved: Whether there will be casinos and how many there should be and where they should be," Moore said.


He said there seems to support for creation of a special commission to decide how many resort casinos should be sited.


"I don't think it will be spelled out in any bills," he said.


For now, Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, agreed it's premature to try and predict which communities might have a better hand to play host.


"We know there's an interest in the Boston market, there's an interest in far western Massachusetts, there's obviously interest in Milford," Fernandes said. There's also talk about Middleborough, he said, where the Mashpee Wampanoags are battling to get federal permission to build a tribal casino.


One thing is sure, he said: "We are not going to have four casinos."


Fernandes said he plans to testify briefly during the hearing.


Any interested parties, including legislators and members of the public, are invited to speak but testimony will be limited to three minutes per person.


Written comments can be submitted before, during and after the hearing.


Spilka said she's looking forward to having a strong, healthy debate about gambling public policy among her colleagues.


The revenue would certainly help the state, which is $5 billion in the hole, but would not be a magic bullet, Spilka said.


"It's not going to plug our deficit," she said.


Spilka said it's hard to say how many casinos it makes sense to open.


"What we need is to hear from people who understand the economics of this type of activity to see how many could be supported," said Moore, who sits on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "The assumption is we would be able to attract some of the folks that are driving to Connecticut."


Among the 16 expanded gambling bills to be heard by the Economic Development committee are six for resort casinos and five related to "racinos," for casino games or slot machines at racetracks.


Legislators agree the resort casinos issue needs extensive research.


Fernandes has urged officials in Milford to follow along with movement at the state level and weigh in on legislation that might effect the town as a possible casino site.


"This is all up for debate, but if we were going to allow it, communities would have to welcome this into their communities," Spilka said.


"I don't think I would be able to support the state deciding whether they would go without community - not just the host - but greater community input and involvement. That to me is a basic," she said. "Clearly surrounding communities would play a role in any decision as well."


After last week's presentation, Milford officials appear to be initially open to the idea of the Crossroads resort casino, proposed to cost $800 million for the first phase. It could generate up to 7,000 jobs and include 5,000 slots, 250 table games, several thousand highrise hotel rooms, 13 restaurants and other amenities.


But officials say the idea is just preliminary until the state acts.


"Right now all eyes are on Boston on this issue," Murray said.


Danielle Ameden can be reached at 508-634-7521 or dameden@cnc.com.