HOUSE SPEAKER Robert DeLeo’s decision to put the needs of the state’s racetracks ahead of all other interests is a staggering example of why voters worry about legislative excesses. His stubbornness has hurt his party and put a governor of his own party in a terrible bind. Thus, it’s a relief that Governor Patrick is standing up forcefully to the speaker, and he must continue to do so.
DeLeo has tried to corner Patrick into approving a gambling bill that allows slot-machine parlors at racetracks, insisting in a statement that a veto would “ "kill the prospects of 15,000 new jobs’’ and money for local aid. But it’s the speaker’s own intransigence that has put at risk the benefits that a more targeted bill could create. Patrick supports the licensing of three resort casinos, which would represent an enormous expansion of gambling in Massachusetts. But DeLeo has deep personal and political connections to the racing industry; his father worked in it, and it’s a major presence in his district. And the speaker was unyielding in demanding that racetrack owners be given special consideration in the gambling bill.
How he got his way wasn’t pretty; progress on a host of unrelated issues stalled for weeks until Senate gambling negotiators knuckled under. Tellingly, DeLeo’s negotiators didn’t bite on proposals to create one or two slots licenses that would be awarded under an open bidding process. In the end, the conference committee agreed to offer two slots licenses to the state’s four tracks. But this was hardly a concession; since the owners of two of the state’s four tracks — Suffolk Downs and Wonderland — are widely expected to seek a casino license, the provision likely means that the Plainridge track in Plainville and the Raynham Park dog track in Raynham would get a clear shot at slots licenses, and all the track owners would come away happy.
The favor to Raynham Park particularly defies logic. Across the country, track owners have insisted that they need slot machine revenue to shore up a declining racing industry. But now that Massachusetts voters have banned dog racing, there’s no real industry to shore up. Track employees who are losing their jobs deserve new opportunities, but help can take a variety of forms — and no-bid gambling licenses for track owners shouldn’t be one of them.
State Senate President Therese Murray, who opposed racetrack slots before compromising in the end, has urged Patrick to sign the resulting bill, and has pointed to a provision that may allow him to block racinos via a new gambling commission that Patrick would help appoint. But this is no solution at all. Because the commission doesn’t even exist yet, citizens have no reason to trust its decision-making. The eventual shape of the gambling industry in Massachusetts will have profound implications for the state, and the state’s elected leadership needs to be accountable for the outcome.
On most issues, DeLeo’s leadership style has been more open and less iron-fisted than that of three recent predecessors, all of whom have been brought up on criminal charges. (Those against DeLeo’s immediate predecessor, Salvatore DiMasi, are still pending.) Yet their troubles highlight the vast amount of power concentrated within the speaker’s office — and the need for speakers to deploy it with exceeding care. DeLeo is entitled to feel a sense of kinship with the racing industry. But to put its needs above all others is an abuse of his authority.