Opponents of legalized gaming in Massachusetts are celebrating the death this past week of Governor Deval Patrick’s bill to license casinos, which was crushed by a seemingly decisive margin of more than two-to-one. But the apparently devastating vote was not a reflection of stiff resistance to houses of gambling iniquity. It actually seems that more legislators want gaming than don’t. (It may, in fact, just be a matter of time — next year’s session, perhaps — before a compromise position can be reached that would likely have the necessary support to legalize casinos in the Bay State.) The question then is whether, amid the showdown between the governor and House Speaker Sal DiMasi, they and other parties have dug themselves in so deeply that they are unable to move toward middle ground.
Patrick’s bill died in some measure, according to several observers, because until the last moment the governor resisted any modifications to his proposal. Some House members would have supported it if they could have amended his bill to connect revenues from gambling more directly to local aid, while others wanted to add an allowance for slot machines at existing race tracks, turning them into so-called racinos.
By the time Patrick did open up to those options, DiMasi was in no mood for compromise — if he ever had been. By a narrow margin, a joint committee sent the bill to the floor without the option of amendment, leading to the overwhelming vote by the full membership to bury the bill for the remainder of the year, essentially dooming it.
“They used inside-baseball procedures to kill it without any debate, any amendment, any compromise,” says Tim Sullivan, communications director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which favors expanded gaming.
To win the negative recommendation he sought from the committee, DiMasi reportedly agreed to allow a racino bill to come to a floor vote. On the surface, that was a big win for racino proponents, such as Representative David Flynn of Bridgewater and, crucially for the committee vote, Representative Richard Ross of Wrentham. They have seen support for their proposal grow in recent years, particularly with the reality of racino-style gambling just minutes from the state border at Rhode Island’s Twin River. (In fact, a significant number of representatives who voted to kill Patrick’s bill support allowing slot machines at existing race tracks.)
But on its own, the racino measure looks equally doomed. In the eyes of many legislators who voted against Patrick’s bill, racinos provide all of the social ills of casinos with far fewer jobs and revenues.
“The reality of the slot-machine vote is that we probably won’t win that, either,” says Kathi-Ann Reinstein, a Revere representative who strongly favors gaming in the state. (An inner-ear infection prevented Reinstein from participating in this past week’s vote, but she says she would have voted in favor of Patrick’s bill.)
Plus, a law that would allow slots at race tracks would also automatically clear the path for Indian tribes to do the same — virtually ensuring the success of Mashpee Wampanoag plans for a mega-casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.
And almost everyone on Beacon Hill agrees that, if the Wampanoag’s casino is inevitable — currently a matter of debate — some version of Patrick’s casino bill will surely pass. The thinking is, if the state is going to unloose the gambling genie at all, it needs to pass a full-fledged casino bill.
So, it appears that casinos can’t win without racinos, and vice-versa. But the two together, in the right package, probably can. In fact, Reinstein suspects that, had Patrick’s bill been amended to include racinos, it would have passed. Others agree with Reinstein’s assessment, noting that Robert DeLeo, the powerful House Ways & Means chair, has expressed some support for race-track slots.
Had the bill been reported from committee favorably — thus allowing amendment — Boston state rep Martin Walsh intended to call for two casinos and either two or three racinos. He expected further amendments to peg revenues directly to local aid, and to increase the amount spent on treating gambling addiction. “There is no question in my mind,” says Walsh, “that that legislation would have gone through the legislature.”
That path failed, observers say, because, by the late stages, both Patrick and DiMasi were battling for victory, not principle. “The governor needed a fight” to expose DiMasi as the obstacle to progress, says a source close to Patrick. “He chose this fight, even though from day one the chances of winning it were not great.”
As the vote drew near, Patrick switched gears and encouraged amendments to his casino bill. By then, sources say, DiMasi was committed to killing the bill and presenting his own revenue plans in the House budget proposal, already being shaped behind the scenes.
The two lead players were not the only ones who became more intransigent over the course of the debate. Labor unions, who fought hard for Patrick’s proposal and who have previously supported racinos, signaled their unwillingness to accept anything less than the full-scale casino plan. On the day of the floor vote, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO sent House members a letter warning that racinos are not an acceptable alternative to full-scale resort casinos.