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In 2 years, turnabout over Mass. casinos

Glen Johnson

Two years ago, the Massachusetts House speaker blocked Gov. Deval Patrick from passing legislation to create three gambling casinos in the state. Now, it’s Patrick who is poised to block the speaker from passing his own bill to create three casinos.

During that short span of time, the speakers have changed from Salvatore DiMasi to Robert DeLeo. And DiMasi’s fears about the social effects of gambling have given way to DeLeo’s concerns for the jobless during the Great Recession.

Throughout, Patrick has largely remained resolute — opposed to both casinos and slot machines at the state’s racetracks, a hybrid known as “racinos.” He maintains they will not only saturate the market but will provide little long-term job creation while generating plenty of social costs, including divorce, petty crime and compulsive gambling.

On Sunday, just hours after the House and Senate wrapped up the year by defiantly passing a bill to create three casinos and two slot parlors, Patrick vowed to veto the measure if lawmakers do not accept his call to revert back to his original three-casino plan and no slot parlors.

“I will not support anything else,” the governor said during a National Guard event in Worcester.

Though up for re-election this fall and aware of the clamor for jobs among Democrat-leaning labor unions, the Democrat governor added, “I have been advised that vetoing it will be politically unwise. If that is the case, then so be it.”

Patrick insisted his original plan would serve the state’s “best long-term economic and social interests.”

Despite hours of public and closed-door meetings; despite a consensus that casinos would recapture revenue being lost to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut; despite unanimity that building the resorts would create both temporary and long-term jobs, it looks like gambling in Massachusetts will finish 2010 where it finished 2008.

Without agreement between the governor and the lawmakers, gambling apparently will be limited to current outlets: Lottery games, live racing at Suffolk Downs and the Plainridge harness track and simulcasting at the two former greyhound tracks, Wonderland and Raynham.

Gamblers may still have to head to Rhode Island to pull the slots or drive to Connecticut to play blackjack, poker and other casino games.

Legislators with visions of three resort-style casinos and track owners relishing their exclusive right to be the bidders for the racinos, as DeLeo proposed, may again end up with nothing.

The stalemate highlights several important dynamics at play on Beacon Hill.

The fissure in the relationship between DiMasi and Patrick created over casinos in 2008 has turned into a full-scale breach between Patrick and DeLeo. It may not matter much for the remainder of this year because the Legislature is unlikely to take up any major bills during its informal sessions, and Patrick will now focus on his re-election campaign.

But it portends trouble if the governor is re-elected.

“Make no mistake about it: Anything short of Governor Patrick signing this bill represents a decision to kill the prospects of 15,000 new jobs and bring immediate local aid to our cities and towns,” DeLeo said Saturday evening, as he stood in front of 100 lawmakers assembled in the Grand Staircase at the Statehouse.

“We have found a way to work together,” DeLeo said. “We are calling on the governor of the Commonwealth to try to find a way to work together as well.”

Ninety minutes later, Patrick used no such flash in a written statement delivering his terse response.

“If the House and Senate choose to send back a bill with two slots facilities, and without a truly open and competitive licensing process [for them], I will veto that measure,” he said.

The breach between Patrick and DeLeo underscores an election argument made by the governor’s Republican campaign opponent, Charles Baker. He and the GOP argue that Beacon Hill has become dysfunctional under its all-Democratic leadership.

“The biggest point is just the lack of leadership from the governor’s office,” Baker said in an interview. “The Legislature, at the end of the day, is 200 people and they have lots and lots of constituencies. But the governor, if he really wanted to focus on the stuff that would get people back to work, would have had them focus on meaningful reform of state government.”

Patrick disputes Baker’s claims. He can reel off what he considers legislative accomplishments and he points to his willingness to compromise on the gambling issue as recent evidence of his commitment to job creation.

“I call on the Legislature to accept the amendment promptly, so that we can provide the good jobs at better wages and benefits that we all agree are available in destination resort casinos,” he said in a statement Sunday. “Had they done so two years ago, when I first proposed it, thousands of workers in the building trades and in other fields would be working today. Let’s not let any more time pass without action.”

Associated Press

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