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State House Roundup: Any Way The Wind Blows

Like Mooninites before it, the Great Bay State Quake of 2011 prompted some eye-rolling inside the barely-staffed capitol, where chandeliers shook and the anti-gambling crowd punned gratuitously about the coincidental timing.

Because on the same day that a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck in Virginia and briefly jiggled New England, the details of the year's most hotly anticipated legislation - a plan to bring three casinos and a slot shop to Massachusetts - leaked to the press and caused the equivalent of a tectonic shift on Beacon Hill.

That the gambling bill was sandwiched between two natural disasters - Hurricane Irene is churning the coastline on its way to New England this weekend - was not lost on political observers and believers in omens. Nor was the fact that its unexpected release preceded by a day a recommendation from prosecutors to throw the ex-most-powerful-man-in-Massachusetts - Sal DiMasi - behind bars for 12 years and change. DiMasi countered Friday that a three-year sentence would be more appropriate, arguing, in part, that his efforts to crush expanded gambling were proof that he's unafraid to stand up to business interests.

The U.S. attorney's office says DiMasi, convicted in June on conspiracy and honest services fraud charges, dishonored his office by taking bribes and deserves the harshest public corruption sentence ever handed down in Massachusetts. He should've known better, prosecutors argued, particularly because his two immediate predecessors were convicted felons.

DiMasi was once among the fiercest critics of expanded gambling in government, a field that has winnowed in recent years to a smaller, quieter few. The job has now passed largely to a less structured, ad hoc collection of opponents, most prominently represented by former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

On Tuesday, Harshbarger riled Speaker Robert DeLeo, expanded gambling's most ardent champion in government, by preempting efforts to put a positive spin on the gambling bill with a cutting statement that alluded to DiMasi's downfall.

"We had hoped that public outrage over a string of public corruption cases would have convinced the Governor and legislative leaders to include public review, oversight and comment on this bill before it came out with their stamp of approval," he said, urging rank-and-file Democrats to rise up against their leadership to demand a cost-benefit analysis of expanded gambling, a long-held, sometimes-amorphous demand.

Harshbarger's commentary struck a nerve. DeLeo and his gambling point-man Rep. Joseph Wagner unloaded on the former attorney general, calling him out by name and shedding the political niceties and decorum usually accorded to veteran hands of the same party.

"Scott Harshbarger puts himself out there as a process guy, but he doesn't really want to do the work. He wants to fire off press releases expressing his opposition when he couldn't take the time to appear before the committee and express himself in person," Wagner said. "His remarks ring a little hollow,"

DeLeo pointed out that Harshbarger was all smiles about the legislative process - the same process, according to DeLeo, used for gaming - when the two men collaborated on a court reorganization bill that the governor signed into law earlier this month.

The biggest takeaway from the gambling rollout was the utter lack of perceptible obstacles to passage. Solid majorities that supported the bill last session - including a veto-proof one in the House - appear likely to hold, and battle-tested proponents have mollified the governor, whose concerns about providing slot licenses to racetracks without competition proved to be the final, insurmountable hurdle last year. Opponents who consistently warn of dire consequences for local businesses, spiking addiction and crime rates, and the instability that comes with the gambling industry have found few takers in the Legislature and have shown no signs that they've made inroads since last session.

After all, it's all about jobs.

"The legislature has debated and voted on expanded gambling in Massachusetts for several years now, and this year it looks closer to becoming a reality than ever before," said Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), co-chair of the economic development committee that released the casino bill on Wednesday, in a Friday statement in which she announced she would abstain from weighing in on the bill at the committee level because of unspecified concerns about communities' "voice" in the casino siting process.

Asked for an elaboration on what areas of the bill Spilka felt were lacking, an aide declined to provide specifics. "She wants to make sure that the communities have a stronger voice," said Spilka spokeswoman Emily Fitzmaurice, in an email, adding the Spilka plans to file amendments when the bill arrives in the Senate following anticipated House approval.

The most spirited debates are shaping up to be over the bill's intricacies: How much should casino revenue be taxed? What type, if any, preference should Native American tribes get for a casino license? Should smoking be permitted inside gambling facilities? How should casino tax revenue be apportioned? What safeguards should be in place for communities hosting casinos and their neighbors?

Gov. Deval Patrick continued to lay low this week, emerging Friday to issue warnings about the potential destruction Bay Staters may witness this weekend when Hurricane Irene is projected to make landfall. Winds are expected to be heaviest in the eastern part of the state, while rain and flood issues will be more prominent to the west of the eye. Patrick declared a state of emergency Friday and called up thousands of National Guardsmen.

"We have a very clear sense, as of right now, of what is coming, and we're ready for it," Patrick said during a Friday afternoon press conference. "We expect this to be a powerful and potentially dangerous storm."

Even while the administration anticipated another natural disaster, budget officials found themselves paying for two previous ones. In a $460 million supplement budget plan, Gov. Patrick requested funding to support communities impacted by a 2008 ice storm in central Massachusetts and for cities and towns ravaged by tornadoes in June. The bulk of the funds, though - some $300 million - are marked for the state's stabilization fund, shoring up an account that was utilized heavily during the economic downturn.

STORY OF THE WEEK: "Cha-ching" — uttered two years ago by Senate President Therese Murray when she predicted the passage of expanded gambling — is back in the Beacon Hill lexicon.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "If you can't stand the tweet, get out of the kitchen." So spoke Eric Fehrnstrom, a GOP political strategist with a quick wit, formidable track record and, apparently, subpar handle on the proper way to command TweetDeck. Fehrnstrom's quote, first reported by Glen Johnson in the Globe, came after he was unmasked as the man behind @CrazyKhazei, a phantom account intended to mock Democratic U.S. Senate contender Alan Khazei. Fehrnstrom works for U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and former Gov. Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.

This program aired on August 26, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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