No side bets

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 26, 2008

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.

Race-track owners, meanwhile, declined to ride to Patrick’s rescue at the last minute, when he dropped his opposition to slots.

In addition, some House members are said to resent the way that DiMasi has been portrayed in the press, as having strong-armed their votes. Out of loyalty to their leader, they may now be unwilling to help the governor by signing on to a new casino plan, regardless of its merits.

Perhaps, a few months from now, when the spotlight glare is on other matters, all of these players can quietly get together and create the compromise bill that would satisfy the governor and most legislators — and most of the state’s residents. At the moment, however, that’s not a bet many are willing to make. “Maybe it will be different in three or four months,” says Walsh, “but right now, I think you could come back and craft the perfect compromise legislation, and it’s going to suffer the same fate.”

School crisis
Lost in the din of that casino showdown was a stunning development that promises to provide political fireworks in Boston over the coming months.

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