Gambling debated behind closed doors

Critics say public left without a role

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 20, 2011

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo stood in front of his office last week and declared that state government has become “a whole lot more transparent than it’s ever been,’’ as a result of the corruption case in which his predecessor, Salvatore F. DiMasi, had just been convicted.

But only two days earlier, DeLeo met behind closed doors with Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray to hash out what could prove to be one of the most controversial bills of the year— a deal to legalize gambling.

The negotiations have been intermittently acknowledged on Beacon Hill, but never detailed publicly. Yet whatever emerges from those talks will probably dictate what the final bill could look like.

“We’re making progress,’’ Patrick said last Monday after his weekly meeting with Murray and DeLeo, adding that the discussion focused on how many slot parlors to allow in the state. “We’re not quite there, but that’s the kind of conversation we’re having.’’

Despite promises about transparency, often the most critical decisions on Beacon Hill happen this way, with little meaningful input from anyone outside the small circle of the State House’s top three leaders.

“The public’s entitled to more, particularly now,’’ said Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat, referring to the embarrassment caused by DiMasi’s conviction.

“If the only way you can do this is getting a deal behind closed doors, it strikes me as tone deaf.’’

While there have been no allegations of corruption related to the casino debate, Harshbarger echoed a critique made by others — that the DiMasi trial cast a spotlight on the pitfalls of concentrating excessive power in only a few hands.

Centralized authority provides special interests an opportunity for outsize influence, Harshbarger said.

But members of the general public, lacking knowledge of what is being discussed, have no way to tell their representatives their opinions. And even those representatives may be shut out of the process.

“It’s an outrage,’’ said Kathleen Conley Norbut, senior adviser for the interest group United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts. “If the decisions are only made by two people or three people, what’s the sense of having a Legislature?’’

Patrick, DeLeo, and Murray have said they support casinos but have been unable to agree on the details. They argue that the casino debate has been aired fully in public over the last four years, since Patrick first proposed authorizing resort-style casinos in the state. Last year’s floor debate in the Senate took eight days.

And the current Legislature held a daylong hearing on the issue in May.

But none of the three leaders would comment directly for this story, instead issuing statements or referring comment to their representatives.

DeLeo said in a statement that the urgency for state revenue and jobs demands that he work to find a consensus with Patrick and Murray.

“This issue has been the subject of thorough public discussion — having been heard three times in consecutive sessions, debated in the Legislature twice, and intensely scrutinized by the public last year,’’ he said. “Any proposed bill will again be debated and voted on in the respective branches.’’

Murray’s spokesman, David Falcone, said in a statement, “We expect the same level of scrutiny and transparency this year.’’

Patrick’s spokesman, Brendan Ryan, said in an interview that any agreement among the top three would be subject to further scrutiny on its way through the full legislative process.

“The meetings in leadership are characterized as high level, and I don’t think that they’re getting into any detail,’’ Ryan said.

At least one gambling opponent agrees.

Representative William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, said there are too many conversations in the legislative process to hold all of them on the floor of the House or Senate.

“Ultimately, there has to be a debate when there’s something that they want to put forward,’’ said Brownsberger.

Patrick has said repeatedly in recent months that last year’s prolonged public debate on gambling sucked “too much oxygen’’ from the political atmosphere, crowding out other priorities. Private negotiations may be a reaction to that.

“The goal is to make sure there are no nonstarters’’ among Patrick, DeLeo, and Murray before initiating a broader legislative debate, Ryan said.

Some lobbyists say that the three top players are working out most of the deal in private so that whoever gives ground in a compromise can save face.

Last year’s negotiations ended in public finger-pointing after the sides failed to reach a deal, despite a general agreement among Patrick, Murray, and DeLeo that the state should legalize casinos.

They ultimately disagreed over whether to allow race tracks to set up slot machine parlors that would compete alongside more traditional full-scale casinos.

Patrick has indicated at times that he is willing to allow one slot parlor in addition to three full-scale casinos. DeLeo has gone as low as two slot parlors, but said in a WCVB interview scheduled to run yesterday morning that he was “willing to compromise even more than I did before to get it done.’’

“There’s an evolving consensus that they’re very close and that this will happen in July,’’ said one lobbyist, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. “Everybody’s giving a little bit. When you’re in an environment like that, it’s really, really, really sensitive and there needs to be a lot of trust, and that’s why you’re not seeing a lot of it in public.’’

Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who opposes gambling, said the Legislature has become more transparent in recent years, but that the DiMasi trial highlighted that there was still work to be done.

Illustrating the point, he said his only confirmation about the current gambling negotiations came from news accounts.

Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.