Gaming bills have plagued the last two legislative sessions on Beacon Hill. First came an ugly showdown in which anti-casino Speaker Sal DiMasi prevailed over the new pro-casino Governor Deval Patrick. Hopes were raised when DiMasi was replaced by pro-gaming Speaker Robert DeLeo in 2009. But DeLeo's insistence on race-track slots — or Patrick's refusal to compromise on that point, depending on whose side you take — derailed the effort.
All parties insist that they don't want to go through all that again. Patrick, in particular, repeatedly warns that the gaming debate tends to "suck all the oxygen" out of Beacon Hill, making it hard to push other legislative priorities.
Nevertheless, the lure of jobs and state revenue keeps the topic from going away.
DeLeo has publicly spoken several times about getting a gaming bill done this session, just last week telling the Lynn Daily Item "We would all like to get it done this year."
Also last week, Patrick spoke optimistically at the Governor's Conference on Travel & Tourism, telling the Springfield Republican that he is "hopeful" a deal can be reached.
The silent member of Beacon Hill's power trio has been Senate President Therese Murray, whose pro-casino posturing has quieted significantly since two years ago, when she was confident enough to call out "ka-ching!" during a high-profile speech. But Senate insiders say Murray is still eager to get it done.
The three met last week and discussed gaming among other topics, according to staffers.
What they want, insiders say, is to reach a full agreement first, and only then put forward a bill, which could then be moved through quickly — avoiding public messiness.
That sounds great. But few believe it will play out that way.
Indeed, that same Daily Item article quotes Lynn Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy predicting a showdown in which the legislature could have to override a Patrick veto.
Beacon Hill watchers differ in their opinions about how much the gaming issue will affect things this year, but they are mostly resigned to it raising its ugly head yet again.
"It's a bill I hope we can deal with relatively early," says Jack Hart of South Boston, majority whip in the Senate. "Because it's the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
Hart is hopeful that Patrick, DeLeo, and Murray can negotiate an agreement, but — like virtually everyone else on Beacon Hill — he hasn't seen any movement on the key sticking point since the bill collapsed last summer. DeLeo seems to still want slots-only licenses for race tracks, while Patrick insists that slots-only licenses — if included at all — must be put out to open, competitive bid.
"Last year we were at a standstill," Hart says, "and that stalemate still exists."
Patrick even sang his position to DeLeo at the annual South Boston St. Patrick's Day breakfast: "Those racinos in love with which you're falling, while I am gov won't see the light of day."
In theory, the big three can privately caucus on that point, without derailing other legislative priorities.
In reality — as DeLeo himself admitted during last year's impasse — the legislative agenda is intra-dependant, with issue X affecting issue Y, and so on.