BOSTON (AP) -- Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill Tuesday legalizing casinos in Massachusetts, capping a five-year quest that he said will create thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions in revenues by dramatically expanding gambling in the state.
Patrick's signature sets in motion a mad scramble for the licenses for the three casinos and one slots parlor permitted by the new law, which also authorizes the creation of a new state gambling commission with nearly unfettered control over the industry.
Opponents have vowed to fight on, raising the possibility of a statewide referendum to repeal the new law.
Patrick, who first suggested legalizing casinos in 2007, said the push to expand gambling has always been about creating jobs, but concedes casinos alone won't solve the state's fiscal woes.
"It's not the solution to every economic challenge we face and it won't be the cause of every social ill that we in the commonwealth together have to deal with," Patrick said moments before signing the bill at a Statehouse ceremony Tuesday.
Attention now shifts to an as-yet-unnamed five-member gambling commission created by the new law. The commission is charged with picking the winning casino bidders and overseeing the industry. Each member of the commission will earn more than $100,000 a year, with the commission chair taking home $150,000, more that Patrick.
The commissioners will be appointed by Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steven Grossman, all Democrats. The three have 120 days to name the commissioners.
Patrick, who will name the commission's chairman, said Tuesday that he'll cast as wide a net as possible to pick the right person for the job, but hopes to reveal his pick in the next couple of weeks after some "crash vetting."
"What's required of the commission is that they set up a whole new industry here in the commonwealth," Patrick said. "I'm looking for a person who has some understanding and appreciation and some experience with management of large organizations."
Patrick said he's also looking for "somebody with unquestioned integrity, someone who understands the importance of transparency" and who can work with city and town leaders who will also have a say in the siting of casinos.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the casinos and slots parlor could bring in up to an additional $400 million in state revenues annually while providing jobs for construction workers and future casino employees.
DeLeo also said it would be at least a year before the slots parlor could open. The casinos could take three or more years to open.
"This bill provides for more money for local aid, provides money for education in particular, our community colleges, manufacturing, local capital projects," said DeLeo, D-Winthrop. "This is much, much more than just a straight expanded gaming piece of legislation."
Approval of the bill came after five years of debate, including a failed attempt to pass a similar measure last year after DeLeo and Patrick came to loggerheads over details of the bill.
Several gambling firms have already eyed possible locations in Massachusetts for casinos. The law splits the state into three geographic regions and allows for no more than one casino in each.
Among those eyeing licensee are: Ameristar Casinos, Inc. which hopes to build a casino near Springfield; Hard Rock International which wants to put a casino in Holyoke; and Mohegan Sun which has proposed a gambling facility in the town of Palmer.
Massachusetts' two federally recognized tribes — the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah — have proposed building a casino in Fall River.
Suffolk Downs, the horse racing track in Boston, is also expected to bid for a casino, while the owners of the former Raynham Park greyhound race track are hoping to win the single slots parlor license.
Opponents say bringing casinos to Massachusetts will lead to an increase in compulsive gambling, crime and divorce while failing to deliver the promised economic jolt to the state.
Tom Larkin, president of United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts, said Tuesday his group plans to meet with other casino foes to consider the possibility of launching a statewide referendum to repeal the new law.
To get a referendum on the state ballot next November, casino opponents would have to gather about 35,000 signatures of registered voters within 90 days, then wage what would likely be an expensive battle to win the hearts and minds of voters.
"I'm not sure we would be able to accomplish that," Larkin conceded. He said opponents might focus instead on trying to stop casinos at the local level, because the new law requires that voters in host communities approve of a casino proposal before one can be built.
Larkin called the signing of the bill by the governor, "a big victory for the gambling industry and the special interests that have aligned themselves with the gambling industry."
Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who heads the anti-casino group Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts, said he was encouraged by the nascent effort to repeal what he called an "ill-advised, poorly-structured, pro-casino bonanza."
Patrick's signing of the bill ushers in a new era of "backroom deals, insider influence and a cash-driven culture of corruption," Harshbarger said in a statement.
Patrick said he respected those who have a moral objection to casino gambling, but said he's not one of them.
"I know not everyone agrees with me on this issue and I respect that, but I have come to my position thoughtfully and carefully," he said.
The bill represents the largest expansion of gambling in Massachusetts since the creation of the state lottery in 1971.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.