The chips are down – Casino bill begins to unravel as politics takes center stage

August 4, 2010
By

What looked like a billion dollar bonanza in the form of expanded gaming has turned into a billion dollar banana peel – and everyone’s slipping on it this week.

State leaders from the governor to House reps are embroiled with infighting this week after a long weekend of compromise and, subsequently, catastrophe.

Gov. Deval Patrick by adding an amendment to the bill calling for no slot machines at racetracks, has pretty much vetoed the bill.

A gaming bill, once a certainty, looks to be dead.

And local delegation leaders are splitting into factions.

Those who worked hard on a compromise – legislators like Revere’s own Kathi-Anne Reinstein (D-Revere) – said this week that they’re incensed at the governor and his stance on the bill.

The governor’s supporters, like Sen. Anthony Petruccelli (D-East Boston), are saying that the time for the blame game is over, and that Legislative leaders need to compromise and push the measure over the goal line.

Not a Slot of Fun

The cog in everyone’s wheel, of course, has been slot machines at the racetracks.

DeLeo has taken a tough stand and seemingly gone toe-to-toe with Patrick in a blinking contest; a contest that has seemed at times like measurements were being taken as to who had more political girth.

On Friday, Patrick seemed to blink first – offering to sign a bill that contained one slot parlor.

“This is a big concession for me in light of my consistent view that slot parlors do not give us the jobs at higher wages and benefits that justify the social costs,” Patrick said late on Friday.

Nevertheless, the compromise bill released shortly afterward contained two slot parlors.

It seemed to be calling the governor’s bluff and the governor wasn’t bluffing.

“I believe that the bill before the Legislature provides for more licenses than the market can bear,” said Patrick after the bill hit his desk on Saturday. “In addition, the inclusion of two slots facilities for the tracks brings social costs without the benefits, and amounts to a ‘no-bid’ contract for the track owners. I have been clear from the beginning that is not something I can accept.”

DeLeo, early this week, seemed to be standing just as firmly in his position.

“We (in the Legislature) have found a way to work together,” said DeLeo in a release late on Monday evening. “Late last week Governor Patrick appeared to be ready to compromise too. He agreed to support one slots facility. Now, because the compromise bill allows for two slots facilities to be bid out among four pari-mutuel locations, he is walking away from 15,000 jobs and immediate local aid for cities and towns. In other words, he is killing major legislation over 1,000 slot machines … He has backed away from even that gesture of working together.”

Revere’s state senator, Anthony Petruccelli, seemed to be favoring the governor’s position – highlighting a rift in the delegation that has emerged over the course of the gambling debate.

“I am very comfortable supporting one slot license because the alternative is nothing,” said Petruccelli. “The governor was very clear a few days back when he said he’d support one slot license. I believed him. I’m not sure why other members did not. Without a gaming bill we do not get the jobs, the local aid to cities and towns, and the much needed infrastructure improvements in places like East Boston and Revere.”

Meanwhile, Reinstein had very harsh words for the governor’s stance, saying that he is committing political suicide.

“We have a governor that’s playing games with people’s lives,” said Reinstein on Monday, in a nod to employees at the track. “If he doesn’t sign it, it says to me he doesn’t want to be governor anymore. The whole no-bid contract thing has been such a slap in the face to people in my neighborhood, in my area … The Governor snubbed his nose at the hard working, blue collar people of this community. I’m a lifelong Democrat and I’m disgusted.

“I thought that I had nice, impassioned conversations with the governor and obviously he didn’t listen,” Reinstein continued. “Running against the Legislature is nothing new. In this case, you’re playing with the lives of all these people and a nice person doesn’t do that.”

Petruccelli countered on Tuesday by saying that he would support coming back into session and passing an amendment without slots.

“I can support suspending the rules and coming back to session and supporting the amendments the Governor has sent us,” he said. “To play the blame game now is not in the best interest of this community, other communities and the state. This is so close to getting over the goal line that we have to push it over.”

The Compromise Bill

Reinstein’s comments came on the heels of a three-week process in which she and others on a specially picked conference committee tried to hammer out consensus on the contentious issue between the House and Senate versions.

And that they did, delivering a bill on Friday night before 8 p.m.

Their bill called for:

• Two slot parlor licenses allowing up to 1,250 machines to be available to the four existing racetracks for a licensing fee of $20-25 million. Those licenses would be awarded through a bidding process. However, some contend that only two tracks would want such a license – and neither of those are the Suffolk Downs/Wonderland entity. That, they contend, would leave Raynham Dog Track and Plainville Racecourse with so-called “no-bid” licenses.

• Three resort casinos in three separate geographic regions of the state. Those licenses would be available in a bidding process, and fees for each license would cost $85 million. A license would also require a minimum capital investment of $600 million.

• A resort casino tax rate of 25 percent, and a slot parlor tax rate of 49 percent – including a nine percent assessment to be used for purse assistance to enhance the state’s horse racing industry.

• Casino revenues to go toward local aid for cities and towns, the state Rainy Day Fund, economic development efforts, education funding, debt reduction, tourism and community mitigation.

• Creation of an independent gaming commission to license and regulate all gaming entities.

Next Stop: Override

As it is now, Patrick has sent that bill back to the House slashed with red ink, in what he is calling an “amendment.” In fact, he has sent them a completely new bill – discarding the conference committee compromise mentioned above in favor of a previous version approved by the state Senate. That bill contains no slot parlors.

DeLeo is expected any day now to soundly reject the governor’s amendment, and Patrick has said he will veto the compromise bill if his amendments are not enacted.

He has 10 days to officially veto the bill, meaning that he must take action by midnight on August 12 or it becomes law.

The only hope beyond that veto is an override vote by the House and the Senate.

Reinstein said that the House is “solid,” and would easily override the governor’s veto.

The Senate is two votes shy of having the necessary number for an override, logging 25 votes and needing 27.

Petruccelli said getting those final two votes may not seem like a lot, but it is a mountain that is nearly insurmountable to climb. There just isn’t anyone who is on the fence or liable to change their mind on the issue, he said.

That’s where organized labor comes in and it’s where they have put their efforts in order to preserve thousands of jobs for their members, many of whom live in Revere, Eastie, Winthrop, Everett and Chelsea.

“We’re not ready to throw in the towel on this yet,” said one local source close to labor. “The bill is on life-support, but we’re not ready to pull the plug yet.”

It appears that labor is targeting Sen. Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington) – elected just last year – and Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Framingham). By adding those two votes, an override of the governor’s veto is possible – getting to the necessary 27 votes a making the bill the law of the land.

“We believe the bill is still salvageable,” said the labor source. “We’ve lost (Sen. Richard) Tisei. He always voted pro-gaming, but now that he’s the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, he’s voting differently. We believe we can get Donnelly. He’s a solid labor guy. We need Spilka, but she’s very close to the Sen. President (Therese Murray), so that’s going to be a lot harder.”

And it’s with that kind of optimism that thousands of people in the area, whose jobs are on the line, are hoping that Legislators and the governor get off of the slippery stuff and back on solid footing.

Track employees and city officials watch and wait — anxiously

The stakes couldn’t be higher for employees at the area’s tracks – including Suffolk Downs and Wonderland.

In fact, reports are that their jobs are literally on the line.

A good source told the paper this week that if expanded gaming doesn’t go through this time, the tracks would not continue to operate.

“The ownership will not wait around for another go at this,” said the source. “They will pull out.”

Revere Mayor Tom Ambrosino said a failure on the gaming bill would be devastating to the City as well.

“It would be disastrous if, having come this far, there is no bill,” said the mayor. “The loss of this expanded gaming opportunity will really be a blow to the City of Revere.”

For Revere, such a scenario means not only the loss of a big opportunity at Suffolk Downs, but also a lost opportunity at Wonderland.

Local labor leaders – who wished not to be quoted directly – said they aren’t ready to face that kind of music. They said that there is still hope, and they won’t discuss doomsday until it actually arrives.

“There’s no sense in setting up the wake until the patient is dead,” said the source.

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