Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo won. So what? Or perhaps more to the point, now what?
DeLeo did the state, the legislature, and his own speakership no favors with his petulant dedication to killing any gaming plan that did not include provisions for four "racinos" — slot machines at race tracks.
The debate over the best way to bring expanded gaming to Massachusetts has been heated and at times convoluted. It is worth a recap to understand what is at issue.
The House acted first, this past April, providing for two casinos anywhere in the state and slot licenses for all four existing race tracks.
In June, the Senate passed its own bill, calling for three casinos, to be situated in three different regions, thus ensuring that western Massachusetts would gain a facility. It made no provisions for slots-only licenses, however.
The state has four race tracks:
* Suffolk Downs (horses), in East Boston, and Wonderland (dogs), in Revere. They are owned as a joint venture, and owners have said that since they intend to bid for a casino license, they will not bid for a slot license.
* Plainridge Race Course (horses), in Plainville. President and owner Gary Piontkowski is viewed with a certain wariness in some political circles. Piontkowski also is perceived to be close to US Senator Scott Brown, in whose former State Senate district the track is located.
* Raynham Park (dogs), in Raynham. Owner George Carney and family are considered less controversial than Piontkowski, and they appear to be more active in contributing to political campaigns.
The compromise bill passed last weekend incorporated the three-region casino plan from the Senate bill, and two slots licenses for race tracks from the earlier House version.
Governor Deval Patrick announced late last week that he was willing to accept one slots-exclusive license, but only if it was open to competitive bidding beyond the race tracks. DeLeo insists that his racino provisions constitute such a competitive bid, since the state has four tracks and only two racino licenses. The problem is that only two of the race tracks intend to bid on those licenses. (Remember: the Suffolk Downs/Wonderland group declared its interest in pursuing more expansive casino licenses.)
Patrick also supports preferential hiring for former race-track employees at the new casinos, as included in the Senate bill. This is important to note because some of the debate has focused on job security for track workers, who in all probability would face displacement with the advent of casinos.
DeLeo is the son of a track worker, and his district is home to both Wonderland and Suffolk Downs. He has been admirably concerned about the livelihood of the state's track employees. His concern for these jobs, however, doesn't justify his holding hostage the promise of as many as 3000 new construction jobs and 15,000 more permanent positions once the casinos are up and running.
The governor and Senate President Therese Murray appear to have a more astute and hard-headed sense of what gaming should mean to Massachusetts, at least compared to DeLeo's race-track-centric view. Their plan is so far the best way to harness casino gaming to provide jobs and generate public revenues in this, the worst economic crisis in a lifetime.