What that meant last year was that the legislative priorities of Murray and Patrick were held hostage by DeLeo until he got what he wanted on gaming.

Several close Beacon Hill observers believe that DeLeo is planning the same strategy — specifically, that health-care cost containment, the top priority of both Murray and Patrick, will encounter slow going in the House unless those two cave on slots.

Last summer, that ploy led to Murray agreeing, at the 11th hour, to accept racinos in the bill. But when Patrick vetoed it, she did not try to override — and it was far from clear she could get the votes if she tried.

She probably still can't. Although it's hard to be certain, given the large turnover in the Senate, there appear to be at least 10 solid anti-casino votes — including some of the body's most progressive members — toward the 14 needed to stop an override.

So the big three will all have to find a way to agree. Maybe that will take place behind the scenes, as Patrick and DeLeo have indicated they intend. But even that seems unlikely to observers, who say that as long as gaming is known to be under consideration, it's going to be the focus of lots of oxygen-sucking attention, to use Patrick's term.

Consider that, earlier this month, more than a dozen mayors — including Tom Menino of Boston — sent an open letter to Patrick, DeLeo, and Murray urging them to "enact expanded gaming legislation." And note the gaming-heavy media coverage of DeLeo's recent Chamber of Commerce speech and Patrick's tourism conference appearance.

Remember also that gaming interests — most notably the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which just a few weeks ago retained the services of former US congressman Bill Delahunt to lobby for its casino plans — are poised for a full-scale push. Anti-casino lawmakers, afraid of waiting too long while a back-room deal is struck, say they plan to rally their advocates on the issue to counter those efforts.

Meanwhile, the current round of budget discussions, to settle on the 2012 fiscal-year plans, promises to push the need for revenue front-and-center — and everyone knows that when Beacon Hill starts looking for revenue, the talk quickly turns to gaming.

Indeed, DeLeo may never have a better negotiating position than in the coming three months, as pressure builds on lawmakers to somehow cut another billion dollars or more from the 2012 budget — and DeLeo's instant-revenue racinos offer an easy way to avoid much of that deficit, and those painful and unpopular cuts.


DISTRACTIONS

That budget battle is already contentious, with Patrick and the legislature butting heads over local aid and spending levels for numerous budget items. DeLeo and Patrick are also far apart on reforming the scandal-ridden probation department and parole board.

Getting the casino debate out of the way quickly may be critical to getting those things done, because there are plenty of other distractions in store.

Redistricting, based on the 2010 US Census, holds the greatest threat of paralysis — especially because, unlike most other agenda items, it absolutely must get done in time for the 2012 election season.

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Related: The Third Annual Phoenix Memorial Day look at the laughable state of Massachusetts politics, State of flux, Let's get serious, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts, Tom Menino,  More more >
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