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Casino debate devolving amid Deval/DiMasi tension

Glen Johnson

There was a time not too long ago when Gov. Deval Patrick was criticized for not working hard enough to win approval for his casino gambling bill.

No longer.

With a rapidity and an intensity rarely seen anymore on Beacon Hill, Patrick, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and their lieutenants have dropped any pretense of decorum and started lobbing haymakers at each other.

The debate may be entertaining to politicos, but it has epic consequences for the state.

Massachusetts is facing an existing $1.3 billion budget deficit, cities and towns are saying they don’t have enough money for basic services, and job creation is the focus of everyone from government leaders to chamber of commerce officials.

Casino gambling could address some of those problems. But critics argue it could create more of its own.

Unbeknownst to many state residents, this debate could be over in little more than a month. The Joint Committee on Economic Development has scheduled a March 18 hearing on Patrick’s proposal, and DiMasi said last week he plans an up-or-down vote before the House completes budget deliberations in April.

That may explain the escalating intensity and devolving rhetoric atop state government.

The governor argues the casinos will create 20,000 permanent jobs and $400 million in annual revenues for the state, a share of which would then be parceled out to cities and towns. He says the jobs will benefit middle-income workers, a complement to his effort to generate high-paying jobs through his $1 billion life-sciences initiative.

He also argues that now is the time for the state to act, because it can control what he considers the inevitable. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is asking the federal government to deem a site in Middleborough, Mass., as tribal lands so it can use that property for a casino. If that happens, gambling not only comes to Massachusetts, but likely on less favorable terms than outlined in Patrick’s plan for state-issued licenses.

Among those opposing Patrick’s plan is state Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, co-chairman of the economic development committee.

Like DiMasi, he is concerned that expanded gambling will exacerbate social problems such as gambling addiction, divorce and crime. They also worry that casinos will cannibalize the state Lottery, a pivotal source of local aid to cities and towns.

Bosley also has taken to puncturing the inevitability balloon, sending a memo to House members this week outlining the hurdles the Wampanoags would face if they bypassed a state license and sought to establish a casino on their own.

Against that backdrop, there is the deepening personal rivalry between Patrick and DiMasi, which has been brought into public view through a pair of Boston Globe articles.

The first reported that DiMasi had been golfing — or invited to golf — with casino supporters, raising questions about whether he was succumbing to the influence of special interests in the debate.

The story put him in an untenable position: If he acceded to Patrick’s request and supported casino gambling, how could he differentiate an honest reversal from the more sinister suggestion that he had been co-opted by the members of his foursome?

The second Globe story questioned Patrick’s suggestion that building the new casinos would create 30,000 construction jobs. The administration conceded it examined a Suffolk Downs study declaring an East Boston casino would create 10,000 jobs, and then merely multiplied that figure by three — once for each proposed casino.

A chastened DiMasi pounced.

“The governor clearly has the burden of convincing the Legislature that this casino plan should be adopted. So far, the case has not been made, the evidence isn’t there and the governor’s arguments for casinos are clearly losing credibility,” the speaker said in a March 3 statement.

The following day, Patrick answered in kind, bypassing the speaker and writing directly to House members.

“Regardless of whether the proposal creates 30,000 construction jobs over the next few years, or 5,000 to 20,000 construction jobs, as reflected in other estimates, one thing is certain: the speaker’s alternative will create zero jobs,” the governor wrote.

Things have only disintegrated from there.

DiMasi and Bosley have begun to dissect Patrick’s arguments one-by-one, while Patrick followed up the letter he sent to House members with a glossy brochure distilling his case.

The self-professed political outsider also has taken to appealing to the better angels of political discourse.

“There’s got to be a way for the leadership and I to differ on a point of view without the vote being some sign of personal allegiance or disaffection,” the governor said last Thursday on WTKK-FM.

There may be a way, but in a chamber where the speaker controls everything from committee assignments to office and parking space, that’s usually a risky bet.

Glen Johnson has covered local, state and national politics since 1985.

(Associated Press)