The recent State Senate debate about the amendment proposing to establish a 5 year “cooling off period” before any legislator could go to work for the proposed casinos has been the biggest news-maker of the process thus far and the first little bump the casino juggernaut has hit in this sessions attempted passage. Given the long history of scandal on Beacon Hill, and the propensity for corruption to swirl around casino’s, one might have thought passing this would be a non-controversial no brainier. Unfortunately, that was not the case and, in fact, the other Senators reacted with a fury and a vitriol that is seldom seen in a chamber that prides itself on decorum and collegiality. The contentiousness surrounding this amendment and its watering down have been well-covered by in the media. But, the video of what exactly what happened is extremely instructive on why real reform is so difficult. The video of the full debates are available on the masslegislaturetv site, which is great- but the format is slow and buggy and it’s impossible to easily direct people to any given part. As a public service, and for instructional purposes, I have put the key parts of the debate of this amendment on youtube- so anyone who wants to can easily view them.
There is about 15 minutes of total video, which I know is a lot for people to watch. The debate speaks mostly for itself, so I’ve tried to keep commentary short when possible. Here is Senator Eldridge requesting a role call for this amendment and advocating for his passage. If anything, his speech is extremely generous to his colleagues, and soft-peddled the ethical lapses that have plagued the General Court:
After a brief recess, where according to the Globe Senate leadership pushed to kill the amendment but discovered that there was at least some hardened support for it, Senator Brewer (Chairman of Ways and Means) took the floor and begrudgingly announced that the Senate would support the amendment and then proceeded to angrily lash into the amendments sponsor. One has to feel for Senator Eldridge here, he didn’t really do anything wrong and getting yelled at on the floor by the Chairman of all-powerful Ways and Means is not a position that any legislator wants to be in:
I actually agree with the first 45 seconds or so of what Brewer says here, but when he chooses to invoke JFK, RFK, MLK, and Gandhi all at once he really goes of the rails. I must have missed that history lesson when Gandhi was protesting for the right of officials in the British Raj to not have to wait 5 years to work for companies they were suppose to regulate.
Next up is Stan Rosenberg, the State Senate designated “point man” on getting casino’s done:
A Boston Globe editorial the other day mentions the twisted reasoning of Rosenberg’s position: “In a unique bit of logic, Senator Stanley Rosenberg, the point person on the gambling bill, said that passing such a no-revolving-door amendment would actually contribute to public cynicism about lawmakers by creating the impression that such a restriction was necessary to protect the public trust and ensure integrity.” But, probably the most notable thing about Rosenberg’s speech is the incredible level of entitlement he shows about jobs for ex-legislators. Everybody should be able to find work, but Rosenberg seems to think that former legislators should expect to be heads of organization it they can’t right away it’s outrageous. He seems to feel his colleagues and audience will be shocked by the tale of a former Senator who applied to be President of two whole colleges and didn’t get either job. This is a weird and shocking level of entitlement- never mind the fact that an ex-legislator actually becoming the head of a college is not exactly unheard of in Massachusetts.
Next up is Senator Gale Candaras of Wilbraham:
Sen. Candaras personally attacks Eldridge and seems not to understand, while some people do think less “career legislators” would be a positive development, the point is to bring different perspectives into the process and lessen the “bubble” that can effect permanent members of a political institution. Enabling former legislators to cash in on industries they helped to create and the inside connections they made while ostensibly working for the public does not help. This whole episode is testimony to the strength of that bubble and the need to get rid of it. Further, Candaras shows clear resentment of ethics laws (which she thinks are debated “every month”), she claims that Mass has the strongest laws in the country, though she apparently doesn’t know what they say because she wants to put the amendment aside until the body can consult existing ethics laws about the matter. As to her point on the relative strength of current law, I don’t want to get into great detail in an already long post, but the foundation of any ethics regime is disclosure and the condition of current disclosure is a sham whereby so much information gets redacted as to make the SFI (statement of financial interests) that legislators file nearly useless. Check out the 2009 SFI of Sen. Candaras, courtesy of Commonwealth Magazine, it has redacted such highly personal details as her Senate office phone, email, and fax #. Check out the same year for Sen. Rosenberg and share a laugh at the spectacle of what state the Massachusetts State Senator if from being actually blacked out. The level of redaction in these documents is nothing less than a mockery of genuine disclosure and ethics enforcement.
Moving on, next is a strange and telling little incident that has not been reported anywhere else as far as I can tell. After returning from a lengthy caucus, the Senate prepared to take up the amendment again and someone shouted “let them eat cake,” to great laughter in the chamber- including from Senate President Murray and Minority Leader Tarr:
It’s unclear who makes this joke, but it could only be one of the Senators or a very high-ranking staff person. Random staff or onlooker would never be tolerated if they made an outburst like this, and would also not be near enough to the mics to pick it up. This joke (which compares the cooling-off period to Marie Antoinette’s notorious advise to starving peasants), and the reaction to it, is basically a de-facto admission that legislators plan to “eat” (make money) of the casino legislation they are currently trying to pass.
Finally, check out repub Senator Hedlund make a process objection, because the as-approved role call of the original amendment never took place, because it was replaced by a watered down version that was voted on immediately after return from caucus. It almost goes without saying that the senators both didn’t want to vote for the original amendment, but also didn’t want to be in position of voting against it- and the quick change solve that problem:
They go back and forth for a while, but never really get anywhere and there seems to be some kind of malfunction with the sound (check out full exchange here, near the start after the role call). The official position of President Murray is yes it was against the rules, but since we got away with breaking them for a minute they don’t count. In essence, the rules are meaningless.
This whole incident encapsulates the essence of the culture of corruption that is all too often tolerated on at the State House- and it illustrates the truism that it is often what is legal that is the biggest scandal. So far, there is little indication the Gov. Patrick plans to stand up to this culture at this key time. For the sake of his legacy, and the hope of a renewed well-being in our body politic, let’s hope that changes fast.