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State House Roundup: Plymouth Rock

The second-strangest phenomenon of the political year occurred Tuesday night, when Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, began flipping votes on behalf of Runyon-esque racetrack operator George Carney and Las Vegas and Macau casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.

Story, of course, was not working with the gambling industry's interests in mind. But the bank-shot intimidation she perhaps unintentionally threw down and at the fence-sitters on Speaker Robert DeLeo's gambling bill, sanctioning two casinos in undetermined parts of the state and 750 slot machines at each of the state's four racetracks, was thorough, rapid-fire and just the final oomph DeLeo needed to ensure he had votes aplenty to offer a preliminary deflection of Gov. Deval Patrick's potential veto of slots at the tracks.

"Since the speaker has been here, there have been no consequences for anybody who did not vote with the speaker," Bad Cop Story told reporters after the first of two days spent debating gambling, by which time it had become amply apparent that the 108-44 anti-casino vote of two years ago was going to be at least inverted — though few would have predicted the final 120-37 rout (PDF). "My sense is that this is the bill he has cared about more than any other bill. My sense is that there may well be consequences for people voting against this bill, particularly people in his inner circle."

When one of the two most progressive members of DeLeo's leadership team — a good-government stalwart — verbally justifies a spine-snapping half-gainer with a desire to keep her seat in the two-hour Monday leadership meetings where the House agenda is charted, well, the forces have coalesced masterfully enough to deliver the manner of net-65 vote gains around which legacies are encased.

Ellen Story! Kay Khan! Cory Atkins! John Scibak! These are the pure-hearted liberal tenders of the downtrodden, or the crazed belfry-keepers of the moonbattery, depending on whom you ask. They were the marginalized outcasts of the Finneran Era, the progressive cornerstone of Salvatore DiMasi's universal health care and gay marriage defense and casino garroting, most of them in the leftist pack who helped deliver the House to DeLeo over those sinister Rainy Day Fund defenders and boyos of the John Rogers Coalition. They were supposed to be feted on Blue Mass. Group, standing athwart the casino culture, yelling Stop.

Story's painfully, almost endearingly, earnest explanation of her motivation was a rare off-note from the popular justification mouthed by casino backers, some of them also in earnest. Rep. Brian Dempsey, who authored and defended the bill, said the new industry would produce over 15,000 new jobs and pump $500 million in annual revenue into the state budget, on top of $260 million in licensing fees.

By Thursday, it was already starting to work, data coming in showing the state added 7,600 jobs in March — almost precisely half the promised haul of the casino industry stimulus — and 4,000 in February. Prorate that two-month clip into November, when there's an election, and you're looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 jobs and a dip in the unemployment rate that might prove helpful to incumbents.

Gambling wasn't even the biggest policy news of the week. Senate President Therese Murray took home that prize, rolling up Wednesday with a health care cost control plan aimed at reining in insurers from double-digit premium escalations, and at kick-starting the lagging move away from a system that reimburses care providers for services rather than quality and aptness of care. Noting that hospitals account for 50 of the state's 250 largest employers, Murray also asked providers for $100 million in voluntary contributions. Murray promised premium reductions for small businesses between 10 percent and 15 percent.

Murray made her share of gambling news, and that was appropriate because for the three-and-a-half months left in the session, the policy elements of the legislative equation will be driven by those two very large variables: health care and gambling. The budget piece of the equation moved a little bit this week, too, as the House budget committee under cover of casino-cast darkness announced it wanted to cut local aid by $234 million and public higher education while, simultaneously, raising overall state spending by 3.2 percent.

And then, just as everything is about to become an inside game, a really inside game and not the kind that gets played by 200 people but more like 10, House and Senate relations started to sizzle a little, Murray cooling off DeLeo's party in four ways: announcing a public hearing on the bill, scheduling the vote not until June, reiterating her reluctance on racetrack slots, and decreeing that the Senate will start with a completely new bill — that last bit peeving House aides who'd spent hours preparing and analyzing amendments on their sides. Worse, on Thursday, two senators who work on the conference committee that's trying to disgorge a bill cracking down on school and Internet bullying turned on their House counterparts and said the Senate had been ready to go and the House had not.

And then, Friday, Sen. James Eldridge, one of those same anti-bullying senators, accused House Ways and Means chair Charles Murphy of eliminating thought and common sense from a bill geared toward municipal relief for cities and towns. Murphy, who worked with Eldridge for three terms in the House and who actually doesn't live that far apart from Eldridge, almost the same Congressional district, responded this way: "Rest assured Sen. Eldridge's opinion is irrelevant to me."

Friction with the Upper Chamber aside, things pieced together nicely enough for DeLeo that House members who had previously, and privately, conveyed concerns about his style and strength were reevaluating. One far-fetched theory even had Story acting on DeLeo's orders, sent out to run up the score by sending shivers through the troops, which would have been Machiavellian enough to render the most captivating image from the gambling debate two years ago — DiMasi glowering in shirtsleeves at the handful of shaky votes left on the Economic Development Committee during a Gardner Auditorium hearing — downright tender.

The iconic moment this time around was Rep. Matt Patrick's emotional floor speech describing the indignities of growing up with a Purple Heart-winning, war hero of a father whose gambling addiction dragged the family into poverty - food stamps, exchanging sneakers with his brother before gym class, brothers and sisters left at the beach while his dad bet at the track. Some reps in the chamber, including eventual yes votes, wept. Patrick is no favorite of the speaker's, and vice-versa, but DeLeo added a grace note, descending from the rostrum to bring a shaky Patrick a glass of water.

Magnanimous in victory, and the gesture sort of drove home the gravity of Rep. Ruth Balser's admonitions the day before, when she told colleagues from the floor that their votes on a casino siting amendment amounted to determining, because of proximity's impact on addiction rates, "who will live and who will die, who will commit suicide, who will become homeless, whose families will be the victims of domestic abuse." Sounds like a poison pill amendment, but it proved not to be.

Shortly, the week was not lacking for drama. And that was before Sarah Palin showed up in her red leather jacket and started ripping Saul Alinsky.

If Story was following orders by warning retribution, if DeLeo was raising on a busted flush and corralled the 120 in that fashion, then this speaker's mastery of the controls has been gravely misunderestimated, and whether he can use the muscle fibers honed and flexed during this exercise — as, notably, his predecessor did during a 2006 House vote to thwart that year's bid for racetrack slots — to toughen the House's standing becomes the Hill's best question that will be answered before November.

STORY OF THE WEEK: 120-37.

EXCHANGE: "Do you have a Web site?" asked an attendee at Wednesday's Tea Party Express rally on Boston Common, featuring Sarah Palin and a lot of people carrying signs and wearing tri-corner hats. "No, but we have a Facebook page," replied one of the guys carrying a sign lettered on a budget with "Green Coalition of Green Loggers for Jesus." Turns out, they do, featuring a Montana-based, self-described "'big-tent' organization that welcomes anyone who wants to exercise their first amendment rights on Independence Day."

This program aired on April 16, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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