State House Roundup: Initial Conversations

Could it be that Massachusetts’ economic elixir — a sizzling casserole of gambling dollars, retail stimulus and health care reform — has been but a dormant seedling in the cerebrum of Paul Sternburg, the unsung master of the Massachusetts State Lottery?

Like Otto von Bismarck before him, Sternburg revealed this week that he just completed a yearlong negotiation to unite New England’s six autonomous states behind the first-ever regional drawing, a numbers game called Lucky for Life.

The game, which promises $1,000 a day for life to grand prize winners, at once accomplishes every elusive public policy goal since the onset on the Great Recession: it expands the state’s gambling offerings, provides a welcome boost to convenience stores, and even encourages preventive medicine – winners, of course, will want to live as long as they can.

A stretch? Yes. But 427 days into the “jobs, jobs, jobs” session of the Massachusetts Legislature, the only alternative growth strategy publicly discussed on the Hill this week entailed the mass proliferation of roman candles and bottle rockets.

Rep. Richard Bastien, a Republican freshman from Gardner, pleaded with colleagues to make Massachusetts one of the nation’s last states to legalize fireworks, despite protestations from the state’s fire marshal and a leading burns surgeon. Establishing a new industry, Bastien said, would generate $40 million in annual economic activity, create jobs and generate $2 million in tax revenue. Like backers of expanded gambling before it was legalized last year, Bastien argued that the state should legalize the fireworks trade because, well, everyone’s doing it anyway.

“Let's face it, they're being used right now. The market exists,” he said at a public hearing on the subject.

With 230,000 residents looking for work and activists describing Massachusetts homelessness as at “an all-time high,” Speaker Robert DeLeo said his leadership team had “just started the initial conversations” on job-creation proposals.

“I just want to vet them out to make sure what's real, what isn't real, and then go from there,” he said.

Republicans, who announced the broad outline of a jobs package more than two weeks ago, have yet to put it on paper and kept a low profile this week.

Gov. Deval Patrick ended the week talking trade with ambassadors from Nairobi and Beijing. He started the week in Washington D.C. mixing it up with fellow governors and hawking President Obama to a national TV audience. Midweek, he talked childhood obesity in Dorchester with Obama health czarina Kathleen Sebelius.

More prominently, however, Patrick appeared this week to have perfected his pro-Obama stump speech, dexterously hailing the president as savior of the American auto industry, preventer of depression, ender of wars, and slayer of mass-murdering terrorists. In between repeating – verbatim – his well-scripted exaltation of the president and subtle but lethal barbs at Republicans, Patrick paused Wednesday to inform Democratic activists, “I stink at sound bites,” a phrase he coined in 2007.


On Thursday, he teased Beacon Hill’s toughest TV reporter, Janet Wu, by insinuating – under duress – that he’d consider running for president in the future.

“Come on, Janet. Might we have more sunny days than rainy ones in future years? Maybe, we'll see.”

Meanwhile, Patrick evidenced little interaction with lawmakers on his self-proclaimed top priorities: a major health care delivery system overhaul and a rewrite of the state’s sentencing laws for habitual criminals and nonviolent drug offenders – although his office isn’t likely to list those meetings on his public schedule.

Speaking of fireworks, the biggest bombshells of the week exploded in southeastern Massachusetts, where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe jacked up the probability for a Taunton-based casino, announcing that it is in talks with the city’s mayor for a tract of developable land. The announcement launched a five-month countdown clock for the tribe to negotiate a deal with Patrick on revenue- and resource-sharing or risk losing its exclusive hold on one of the state’s three highly coveted casino licenses.

The announcement immediately called into question the viability of Raynham Park’s bid for a standalone slots-only facility across town from the tribe’s proposed site. But George Carney, who owns the 125-acre former dog track – which now functions as an off-track betting facility – sought to assuage any doubt.

“It doesn’t bother my plans one bit. I’ll go up with a license also. I think I’ve got a great location,” he said in a phone interview. “Competition doesn’t faze George Carney.”

However, Gary Piontkowki, the owner of Plainridge Racecourse and Carney’s closest competitor for the license, said his track and its live horse-racing, would be an easier sell to gambling industry overseers. Carney ridiculed Plainridge as a “postage stamp” that could barely house a garage, but Piontkowski said his land spans 100 acres and has been the subject of repeated investments in recent years.

“Unfortunately for the dog track, they don’t have live racing,” he said. “I can’t disparage George because I don’t even consider him – they’re not in the same level that we are as far as advancement.”

The region’s other bombshell was a seamier sort: the allegation that perennial gubernatorial candidate and former Massachusetts Turnpike agitator Christy Mihos had assaulted his wife and repeatedly solicited prostitutes for sex. The suggestion had tongues wagging on Beacon Hill, where Mihos once railed memorably against Big Dig excesses. Mihos didn’t return phone calls or texts – his voicemail was full.

Meanwhile, cognizant of an impending federal cut to HIV/AIDS prevention for Massachusetts – a result of the state’s declining transmission rate – the Senate this week struck a blow that activists said would help thousands of residents living with the virus realize they have it, seek treatment and prevent childbearing mothers from passing it to their children.

A bill that cleared the Senate without opposition – despite privacy concerns raised by Fenway Health and the Massachusetts Medical Society – would permit doctors to administer HIV tests based only on verbal consent from patients, rather than the existing requirement that patients sign a written consent form.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The “snowstorm” aside, Beacon Hill heads into March like a lamb.

OCCUPY NURSES HALL: Thursday featured an impromptu Occupy Boston rally inside the State House, livening an otherwise staid building and irritating police who turned out in force to keep protesters in check. For every two protesters – who chanted forcefully for public education funding – there was one statie, park ranger or plainclothes cop tracking their movements and radioing in to headquarters as the protesters paraded past largely empty offices and out of the building, pausing briefly at Fox News’s Beacon Hill studio to register displeasure with the Murdoch-owned affiliate.

This program aired on March 2, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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