For those of us who have been working for years to oppose the expansion of predatory gambling in Massachusetts, the last few months and weeks have brought a strange combination of horror and satisfaction. Horror, because we have seen so many otherwise reasonable — and progressive — legislators accept the misleading or downright false information that has been force-fed to them by lobbyists, racetrack owners, and secretive billionaires. Satisfaction, because the whole tawdry process — of closed meetings, illogical argumentation, self-delusion and unfettered greed — is finally being aired on television and the newspapers every day.
The arguments about the damage slot machines will inflict on individuals, small businesses, and local communities are starting to sink in, so that even long-time Democrats who have tended to think of gambling as a question of personal choice are starting to feel a groaning sensation in their guts. They are starting to remember that the Democratic Party officially voted at their June 2009 convention against slot machines in Massachusetts. And no wonder: the numbers are horrific.
Let’s run through them again. Three casinos at 3,000 to 5,000 slots each equals as many as 15,000 for the state. The compromise proposal seemed like it was cutting the numbers of slot barns from four to two, but it also doubled the number of slots they can have — an amazing sham — so that is another 3,000.
Since most slot machines — which run 24/7 — pull about $300 a day out of people’s pockets, that is a direct drain of $2 billion on local economies. Then, because Native American tribes are allowed to build the same kind of gambling facilities that have been approved for the rest of the state, we can easily predict two more casinos. That brings the total to five casinos, two slot barns, and as many as 28,000 slots machines draggin $3,000,000,000 out of the economy every year.
What has been even more shocking is that even though legislators paid lip service to the idea that the bill would have negative effects, they refused to commission an independent cost-benefit analysis that would have detailed the actual costs of regulation, law enforcement, community mitigation, addiction services, lost lottery revenues, increased crime, embezzlement, and social destruction to families. Why? Because, as Jack Nicholson said, they couldn’t handle the truth. They grabbed on to a single number of 15,000 jobs produced by pro-casino consultants and used it in every speech and statement as a shield to rational thought.
Which leads us back to Deval Patrick, a man many of us have admired since he appeared in public life. Some of us worked as hard as possible for him, beginning early in the cycle, because we believed in his three stated principles: no financial gimmicks, focus on long-term solutions, and always stand for the idea that the people of the Commonwealth, were “all in this together.”
This is why many of his supporters were shocked when, in 2007, he appeared in Gardiner Auditorium to defend the idea of three “resort casinos” — a lovely term whose benefits have rarely materialized in the many states where lobbyists shilled for the concept.
He later introduced some nuance after learning more about slots, known as the “crack cocaine” of the gambling industry. The benefits of casinos, he insisted, were still real (even though casinos rely for their profits on addicted gamblers), but the proposed slot barns being promoted by racetrack owners were too dangerous.
The House and Senate then put themselves through months of contortions. The House introduced their bill on April Fool’s Day and rammed it through without hearings on April 14, the one-year anniversary of the murder of Julissa Brisman who was allegedly killed in a theft to fuel the gambling debts of Philip Markoff. The Senate announced that they would do things differently, so they released their bill on a Friday and held one day of hearings the following Tuesday. The bill came within six votes of failing in the Senate, which would have killed off the whole prospect.
For the last few weeks the House and the Senate have tangled about their respective formulas for distributing large amounts of public money to private interests. They finally produced a bill that is a clear win for the Speaker Robert DeLeo, who has staked his entire public reputation and Speakership on getting what he wants on this issue.
Offering to resolve the matter, Deval Patrick suddenly switched positions again– another disappointment — and announced that now he was for three casinos and one slot barn – still as many as 16,000 slots.
What did his offer get him? DeLeo tonight assembled his followers on the Grand Staircase and openly challenged the governor to exercise his veto. The Speaker is so confident of his power and so certain that he is right that he has just kicked sand in the governor’s face.
So what will the governor do? Cave in to the Speaker’s demands and sign the bill. Or veto it outright, and let the legislature attempt an override. The Speaker has the votes in the House, but an override could fail in the Senate. I am sure that the Governor’s political advisors are being flooded with threats from unions and others that a veto would cost Deval Patrick a second term.
I suppose that’s true. It might. It is also true that Charlie Baker, who has been a little slow on the uptake, might transform his tepid “one casino, maybe” position into a sustained attack that will dampen the enthusiasm of progressives and independents for the re-election of Patrick. The argument runs both ways.
That is why the governor should now do what is right: stand up for the principles that got him into office, accept his responsibility for having steered the legislature towards this brink, and now pull them back courageously with a decisive veto of this whole appalling bill.