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State House Roundup: Safe Bet

The Quixote-esque tilting by the remaining anti-gambling House members echoed through the halls of the State House, but fell on deaf ears this week as expanded gaming legislation picked up speed and momentum, lending credence to the notion that the remaining process may be little more than formality.

The House this week stamped an expanded gambling bill with a 123-32 vote of approval. The overwhelming endorsement may not have surprised anyone on Beacon Hill. After all, supporters saw this play out last session, after many members switched their votes following the departure of anti-expanded gambling Speaker Sal DiMasi.

But for anyone doubting whether the state may make a leap it’s long shied away from, the signs began to mount that Massachusetts – innovation and knowledge-based economy aside - is on the cusp of opening its doors to casino gambling, albeit casinos that will have to stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m.

“I said my piece last year,” quipped one House gambling opponent in the hall as the debate carried out on the floor, as sure a sign as any of a beaten-down opposition. Casino critics reminded their colleagues of the social ills of gambling and warned of inflated economic projections before slinking back to their offices tails dragging.

Moments after receiving congratulations from his flock on the House floor Wednesday after the vote, Speaker Robert DeLeo sauntered out of his office to take questions from the assembled media.

“I feel good,” the Speaker deadpanned after the lopsided vote, putting on his best poker face. A day before, the Legislature’s most ardent champion of expanded gambling pronounced he would be planning no “major parties or congratulatory parties until it’s signed into law.”

The sense of inevitability, however, came into sharper focus on Friday when the Senate Ways and Means Committee kicked out a gambling bill nearly identical to the one produced by House Ways and Means less than 24 hours after that chamber finalized its version: three casinos, one slot parlor.

Marked for debate a week from Monday, the Senate bill stripped most of the minor amendments tacked on by the House during its debate, but hewed closely to the broad framework approved by the House, including tax structure, revenue allocation and Indian gaming protections.

Unlike a year ago, gone are the major policies differences between the branches and Patrick over racetrack slots. The disagreements with the governor, judging from his comments, appear to have been washed away. And gone is the ticking clock that gave opponents a glimmer of hope last session that they could delay the bill to death.

“Cha-ching!” as Senate President Therese Murray once said.

Gaming lobbyists and casino developers may be seeing dollar signs after this week, but DeLeo and his leadership team were pushing one message: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs – 16,000 to be exact, and blue collar jobs to boot. Less frequently mentioned, however, is that only 7,000 of those projected jobs are permanent and more than three years away.

Also on the jobs front, the Patrick administration announced this week that the unemployment rate had dropped, after months of stagnation, to 7.4 percent in August despite the loss of more than 8,900 jobs – mostly chalked up to the Verizon workers strike.

As smooth as the gaming debate went in the House, a pension reform package that won approval in the Senate a day later provided a far more feisty display of opposition from pro-labor senators, most notably Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, who described the bill as a “disturbing” erosion of benefits for future state employees who deserve none of the blame for the state’s $17 billion unfunded pension obligations.

"We as a country have continually loaded debt to our children and our grandchildren and this is what we're doing with this bill. We're asking our new employees that haven't even come to work yet to pay the debt that was accrued over the last 40 years, and that goes against everything we should believe in this country,” Donnelly said.

The bill, ripped by unions for going too far and by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation for doing too little, actually seemed a bitter pill for most in the Senate.

“This is not a piece of legislation that wins popularity contests quite honestly, but frankly responsibility is ours," Sen. Stephen Brewer said, suggesting the reforms were necessary to protect the defined benefit plans for future generations.

The bill succeeds in cutting $5 billion in cost from the pension system over the next 30 years by raising retirement ages, and reducing benefits for future employees hired after January.

So distasteful was the vote to some that Sen. Frederick Berry, who supported the reforms, even urged opponents to stop forcing their Democratic brethren to go on record with what he feared would be damaging roll call votes.

It would be hard to argue that anyone had a better week than DeLeo, but one could make an argument for Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, the crusading consumer advocate loathed by the financial industry and lionized by liberal Democrats, who made it official – in Southie no less.

Warren, as expected, jumped into the 2012 U.S. Senate race, officially stomping all over any momentum Newton Mayor Setti Warren hoped to squeeze out of his Methuen straw poll victory.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Casinos: a safer bet than the Red Sox making the playoffs.

This program aired on September 16, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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