The end of the two-year Massachusetts legislative session frequently turns into a high-stakes poker game, with the governor, Senate president, and House speaker bluffing and bargaining down to the wire — along with lobbyists, interest groups, and, in election years, candidates for state office kibitzing from the sidelines.
That was the case as the 2009-'10 session wound down last week.
A stack of proposed laws, ranging from school nutrition to economic development, needed to get done by the Saturday deadline. But those bills were held hostage, as bargaining chips in the showdown between House and Senate over the details of an expanded-gaming bill.
In the end, many of those other bills passed — but the gaming bill failed to become law, at least as of this writing.
After the House and Senate finally agreed on a bill which included two slots licenses for race tracks, Governor Deval Patrick sent it back to them with an amendment to remove those licenses. With the session already ended, the bill is likely to expire.
Just as there is no substitute for experience in poker, in this political game the ones who came out ahead were those who have been through the action before.
Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray, by now at ease with the intensity of the pressure, came away with most of their agendas fulfilled.
Things did not end so well for new Speaker Robert DeLeo, navigating the end-of-session maneuvers for the first time. His one and only apparent priority — slots for race tracks — is the one thing that clearly isn't going to happen this year.
"It's a big hit to DeLeo," says one Beacon Hill operative. "Murray has become the more dominant player — this session showed that."
Experience showed in the gubernatorial candidates as well. Tim Cahill, who as treasurer since 2002 has tussled in plenty of these types of backroom Beacon Hill battles, emerged as the clear champion of casino and racino supporters; there is even speculation now that he could win some key trade-union endorsements because of it.
By contrast, Republican Charles Baker has been outside the State House for over a decade, and never led a strategic political fight there. His position on gaming hewed too closely to Patrick's — supporting limited expansion, but opposing the house proposal as excessive. That left him poorly positioned, compared with Cahill, to make hay out of Patrick's failure to get a casino bill passed.
All of this is contrary to what might have been expected as the session began, at the start of 2009. Back then, Patrick and Murray seemed to have the most to lose if no casino bill passed. After all, it was Patrick who originally pushed for casinos, and fought hard while losing two years ago to then-speaker Sal DiMasi. And it was Murray who back in early 2009 promised passage of a casino bill this session — infamously punctuating the vow with a loud "ka-ching!"
But more recently, both the governor and Senate president have de-emphasized the importance of casinos, instead talking up other legislation — particularly bills addressing economic development, health-care costs, criminal-offender records information (CORI), and foreclosure protection.