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State House Roundup: What To Leave In, What To Leave Out

Gambling hearings on Beacon Hill are a bit like family gatherings. Deeply, critically, unmistakably dysfunctional family gatherings highlighted/marred by long-held grudges and repeatedly expressed grievances, tropes, and claims of preeminence.

And so it was that several hundred estranged members of the gambling, and anti-gambling, clan crowded Tuesday into Gardner Auditorium to advance competing demands on the commonwealth’s as-yet unborn slot machine and table game industry.

To be clear: Senate President Therese Murray and Gov. Deval Patrick have, at one time or another, filed proposals that envision three casinos. House Speaker Robert DeLeo laid out a package a few months back that allows two casinos, and four “racinos” — slot machine halls at the state’s four racetracks, two of which no longer feature live racing because voters decided in 2008 to ban dog racing, a verdict critics said might have been the first time in the state’s history the electorate had opted directly to end an industry.

Of the Big Three, DeLeo cares most ardently about the contours, nooks and crannies of the final bill. But in this most umbral of issues uncertainty lurks even there. DeLeo loyalists for weeks have been downplaying the hard-line nature of the speaker’s pose, and the Winthrop Democrat, who also represents Revere, himself came out Thursday in The Standard-Times and went squishy.

DeLeo will, the paper wrote, “fight tooth and nail for gaming legislation that provides for slot machines at the state's existing racetracks, but it's not a deal-breaker if a Senate bill concludes otherwise.”

Oh. That morsel would be considered news by the House members who spastically contorted themselves into supporters of racetrack slots back in April. "My sense is that this is the bill he has cared about more than any other bill,” House leader Ellen Story said in April. “My sense is that there may well be consequences for people voting against this bill, particularly people in his inner circle."

In the same interview with the Standard-Times, DeLeo indicated he did not favor carving out a license in the bill for an Indian tribe to land a casino, putting him further at odds with the Senate.

There is movement afoot in the Upper Chamber to write slots into the bill, sources with fervent and lucrative interest in the issue have informed the News Service. If that works, it’d make for one hunky-dory conference committee. Who ultimately peoples that panel is of tremendous interest to the legislative advocacy community. If the bill comes off the Senate floor sans racinos, DeLeo said, well, "that's what conference committee and negotiations are all about."

Said the speaker, who has repeatedly tried to take down the temperature around gambling, "Not to be open and ready for compromise would be foolish."

Indeed, the Legislature evinced its procedural agility this week after a hiccup of a vote on Patrick’s gun control bill, as the House by Friday began considering swallowing it back into committee after giving it a thumbs-down in a vote in which committee members didn’t really seem all that interested, proof of which came through the fact that fewer than half the panel members appeared to partake in the initial vote. The bill, which took six days to process out of committee despite a 14-to-3 Dem-to-Republican ration on the panel, will probably go back in, then come back out, maybe pass, and all will be right with the world, if not the National Rifle Association.

Of bipartisan concern this week was the small matter of $687 million that has gone missing from the state’s budget. It’s federal Medicaid reimbursement money and it ain’t happening — yet, anyway. The U.S. House nixed it from a jobs bill last month and, despite its earlier backing from both the House, Senate and White House in various vehicles, legislators and now Patrick are conceiving of a fiscal 2011 budget that’s $700 million short. That money was supposed to help mend a nearly $3 billion in structural deficit that was already hectoring budget authors.

Now would be a good time for the vaunted Bay State clout on the Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue to start working its mojo.

Charles Baker, looking to unseat the state’s senior liaison to the Obama administration, said this week he had a better way to fix the budget, rolling out a $175 million tax cut package that included a scaleback of unemployment benefits. Baker did it at the Chamber, which swapped out the usual powdered eggs for honeyed ambrosia to mark the occasion. Chamber President Paul Guzzi, after a pointed canonization of Baker, scorched him for those Republican Governors Association commercials eviscerating Treasurer Timothy Cahill as a top-flight cronyist. The ads proved ridiculously effective, dragging Cahill toward Jill Stein territory, within the margin of single digits. They did not appear to offer voters much in the way of affirming Baker, and so their net effect was to benefit the governor, who may still need a viable Cahill as the sink-weight on Baker.

If Patrick wins, it'd be the second time he has run for office, the second time he was supposed to lose, and the second time he's won. The man would then have more to say about how to beat Republicans by running to the left, albeit once in a three-way race, and embracing one's political id than just about anyone else in the country. He would be on magazine covers and Larry King, lauded and reimagined as a player in national Democratic politics, a Lazarus in Vineyard Vines. Speaking-fee 'em all, Deval.

Patrick is grateful for Cahill not just because the treasurer helps make the math work for him, but because Cahill unleashes what are the governor's ideological instincts anyway. Immigration crackdown? In a three-way race, the governor can comfortably crusade against it. Ballot-slated tax repeals? With two guys making noise on his right, he can safely trash them. Slot machines are vetoable now because he’s got the left to himself.

This liberty to be himself, to cook in his own kitchen, was on full display Saturday in Worcester, the heartbeat of the commonwealth, where Patrick deployed a parallel construct in arguing that the logical and righteous bookend to the changing of the guard four years ago was now to “guard the change.” The governor’s upbeat description in his convention speech of the commonwealth as “on the mend and on the move” drew laughing incredulity from Baker and Cahill, not to mention his old rival Grace Ross.

There was little such skepticism in the DCU Center, though, where the governor appeared every bit the wound-closing party leader he’d always said he’d be, and as recently as last year was not, amid the battlefield carnage wrought by gas taxes, aborted toll hikes and legislative snubbings. This is a different year, a different season, and a different Patrick.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Conference committee season.

This program aired on June 11, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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