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House rejects casino bill; backers vow to roll again

Racetracks, unions, tribe pursue strategies

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 21, 2008

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Led by House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, the House last night resoundingly defeated Governor Deval Patrick's casino bill, 108 to 46, but racetracks, unions, and other gambling proponents vowed to keep up their lobbying blitz.

Among the gambling initiatives still bubbling on Beacon Hill were a renewed push for slot machines at the state's four racetracks, a plan for a statewide casino referendum, and maneuvers in the Senate to resurrect the governor's bill, which would have licensed three resort casinos in the state. The focus will also turn to a quest by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which is asking the federal government to allow it to build a $1 billion resort casino in Middleborough.

But yesterday the biggest spotlight remained on the House, where DiMasi strongly declared his political victory. Patrick, having given up his fight by Wednesday night, left the state for New York.

"The big money special interests lost, and the people of Massachusetts won," DiMasi said in a statement. "Members of the House withstood incredible pressure from the deep-pocketed gambling industry, unions, and the governor's office."

Patrick's spokesman Kyle Sullivan said Patrick had to leave the state to attend to undisclosed personal matters.

The defeat of Patrick's legislation has significant consequences in the debate over next year's state budget, which contains a shortfall estimated at $1.3 billion. The governor had proposed relying on $124 million of casino licensing revenues to help balance the budget. Attention will now shift to a proposal by DiMasi to raise $152 million by increasing the state's cigarette tax by $1 a pack.

After six months of impassioned debate, the votes were all but decided yesterday. The governor's legislation came to the House floor facing insurmountable odds, given an unfavorable recommendation on Wednesday from the Joint Committee on Emerging Technologies and Economic Development.

Most lawmakers leaned back in their chairs during six hours of testimony, nodding off, attempting to finish crossword puzzles, and writing text messages on their cellphones. Representative Richard Ross, who cast the deciding vote in committee Wednesday that resulted in a negative recommendation, ate from a bin full of red licorice as the debate droned on.

The vote followed nearly six hours of debate on the House floor, where members sparred over the benefits and ills of expanded gambling. They argued whether the bill had received a fair committee hearing and whether it was inevitable that Native Americans would win approval for gaming in Massachusetts.

"We have not given this bill due process," Representative Martin Walsh, a Boston Democrat, said just before DiMasi slammed down the gavel and said he was out of time. "We have not given this bill a fair hearing," Walsh said.

"We had a full and fair hearing," countered Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat who oversaw committee hearings on the governor's legislation and sparred with opponents for about an hour yesterday.

In the end, none of the leaders would answer questions after a week of press conferences and recriminations. While Patrick had left the state, DiMasi went through a back door into his office, avoiding a pack of reporters gathered in the hallway outside the House chamber.

Through his press aides, Patrick attempted to move the focus off his dramatic loss and onto some of his other proposals, including several education intiatives and a $1 billion life sciences bill that was approved yesterday by the Senate.

"Governor Patrick appreciates all the legislators who stood with us today," said Sullivan. "The governor looks forward to continuing to work with House and Senate leadership and members to push our comprehensive jobs creation and economic development agenda."

As the House went through the motions of killing Patrick's landmark bill, racetrack owners were strategizing over ways to put momentum behind a bill that the speaker has vowed to bring to the House floor for discussion. Representative David Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, is spearheading a proposal that would allow each of the state's four racetracks to install 2,500 slot machines. Each track would have to agree to pay a $50 million licensing fee and give the state 50 percent of the slot revenues, which would generate an estimated $400 million annually.

"It brings it right to the forefront," said Flynn, the longest-serving member in the House. "I'm the only game in town."

A similar proposal in 2006 failed 100 to 55, but track owners are arguing that chances are better now.

"I'm hoping we can all get together now and the governor can say I need the revenue now because I lost casinos, and DiMasi will agree, too," said Gary Piontkowski, president of Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. "Am I optimistic? I'm not doing cartwheels that I think we're going to get this. But I know one thing: We won't be mudded by the casinos and the casino culture arguments."

The governor has said he would veto any legislation that specifically included slot machines at racetracks, but those statements were made as he was trying to promote his own proposal for three resort casinos. "As far as I'm concerned, that's off the table," Patrick said in a press conference earlier this week.

DiMasi has in the past been vehemently opposed to slots at the tracks, but recent actions indicate he may be more amenable. He met with Flynn several weeks ago and committed to allowing a slot machine proposal to come to the House floor in the coming weeks.

Yet Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who supported a resort casino at Suffolk Downs, does not support slots at the tracks. "A destination resort casino is much more what the city needs, rather than just slots," said Dorothy Joyce, spokeswoman for Menino.

Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos of Lowell said he plans to propose a nonbinding statewide ballot question on casinos in the fall. The move, which would need House and Senate approval, would increase public pressure on lawmakers if the vote mirrored public opinion polls that indicate that the majority of Bay State residents favor casinos.

"The House's argument has been that it's going to change the culture and character of Massachusetts," Panagiotakos, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said last night. "Well, the best to decide that is the people of Massachusetts."

Matt Viser can be reached at