Governor Deval Patrick fired back at House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi yesterday over his criticism of Patrick's casino construction job estimates with a simple message: Put up or shut up.
Patrick, seeking to shift the focus from a dispute over specific jobs numbers, sent a letter to each of the 155 members of the House chiding DiMasi for not coming up with a revenue plan of his own.
"Attacking ideas without proposing sound alternatives is not good economic policy, nor what the public expects or deserves," Patrick wrote. "If the speaker has other proposals that will generate the benefits of our legislation, including direct property tax relief for over 1 million households, I look forward to hearing them."
A Globe report Sunday said Patrick's estimate that building three casinos in Massachusetts would produce 30,000 construction jobs appeared excessively optimistic, compared to actual experience and independent estimates.
On Monday, DiMasi, citing the Globe report, accused the governor and his staff of failing to produce a realistic jobs estimate and said Patrick's plan is losing credibility on Beacon Hill. He called Patrick's estimates absurd.
But Patrick and his economic development secretary, Daniel O'Connell, countered yesterday that the dispute over casino construction jobs should not be allowed to tarnish the overall promise of casino gambling, including new jobs and a new source of revenue for the state.
"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 said in his letter to lawmakers.
O'Connell, who is shepherding the governor's casino proposal, appeared to shift his stance after standing behind the original estimates Monday. He conceded in an interview yesterday that the governor's 30,000 construction jobs estimate was "not a precise calculation," even though Patrick used it to help sell his casino plan in his State of the State speech Jan. 24.
O'Connell stood by other estimates that Patrick has touted, including 20,000 permanent jobs at the casinos and $400 million in annual gambling proceeds for the state.
It is a sensitive time for the casino debate. With hearings scheduled to begin March 18, an informal Globe survey of House members last week indicated that more than a third of representatives remain undecided and that negative votes outnumber positive by a significant margin.
DiMasi was unavailable to respond to Patrick's letter last night, said his spokesman, David Guarino.
"It is understandable that the governor is concerned, since the numbers do not add up and he's losing credibility on this issue," Guarino said.
The state Republican Party also pounced yesterday and poked Patrick for his out-of-state campaigning for presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"Governor Patrick sure is earning his title as the Great Exaggerator," Barney Keller, spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, said in a written statement. "He knows how to buy a plane ticket to Ohio, but he doesn't know how many jobs his own plan will supposedly create."
Meanwhile, a team of the governor's Cabinet secretaries met for an hour yesterday with members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to discuss the tribe's proposal for a casino in Middleborough.
It was the first meeting since Patrick's administration filed a formal objection to the tribe's plans with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The tribe is seeking federal approval to build a casino without state oversight, while Patrick wants to see the tribe develop its casino under his proposal for state licenses, which would ensure that the state gets a share of revenue.
Both sides were conciliatory in public statements after the closed-door meeting yesterday, but they did not provide details of their discussions or shed any light on their positions.
"We definitely want to work with the state," said tribal council chairman Shawn Hendricks. "Our tribe members, we live here; we have friends here. It's common sense that we would, you know, build a relationship. We don't want to come out in a negative light and come out in a controversy with anyone."
Hendricks also said that, although the tribe is working with the state, it would continue to pursue its federal application.
"When would we want to build it?" Hendricks said. "Three days ago."
If the tribe is able to win federal trust status for the land, the property effectively becomes sovereign territory, and the state risks being shut out of gambling proceeds. State regulators would not have any sway over details such as zoning, traffic, environmental impact, and public safety. The value of any future state-licensed casinos would also be diluted.
The argument of inevitability for an Indian casino has been another key selling point for Patrick. An Indian casino is coming, he says, so the state should make sure it happens on its own terms.
"There's no question in my mind that there will be a facility taken into federal trust by the tribe," O'Connell said in the interview yesterday. "We will have a Native American casino in the Commonwealth and in the not-too-distant future."
Meanwhile, the state's racetrack advocates are pushing for a compromise that would allow for slots at the state's four racetracks. A similar proposal in 2006 failed by a 100-to-55 vote, but track owners are arguing that they could bring much-needed revenue to the state quicker than casinos.
Several track-friendly legislators will probably attempt to substitute their own legislation enabling slots at tracks for the governor's casino bill.
A pro-casino organization, the Massachusetts Coalition for Jobs and Growth, announced new supporters yesterday, including Mayor William Scanlon of Beverly, Mayor Edward Caulfield of Lowell, the Lowell City Council, and the Springfield Police Patrolman's Association.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.