Political clash sinks Massachusetts casino-gambling plan

House vote seen as big defeat for freshman Governor Patrick.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Massachusetts soundly rejected casino gambling Thursday night in a House vote that had more to do with politics than with gambling itself, analysts say.

While gambling interests have seen a temporary setback, Gov. Deval Patrick has suffered an embarrassing defeat in his first major legislative initiative.

Governor "Patrick is the big loser here, in the sense that politically he really needed a victory," says Thomas Whalen, professor of social science at Boston University. "He comes across here as being a real amateur. This was his first big test as a governor and, frankly, he failed it."

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By a 108-to-46 vote, the House rejected his proposal to allow three resort casinos and ban Internet gambling in the state.

House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi spearheaded the opposition to the bill, arguing that the social costs of gaming outweighed the benefit of potential tax revenues. "The cost of creating a casino culture is too high. There are far better ways to create jobs and increase revenue," said Speaker DiMasi in a statement. "Today, the big money special interests lost, and the people of Massachusetts won."

After it became apparent that the bill wouldn't pass – a House committee gave the proposal a negative recommendation Wednesday – Patrick left for New York. "The Governor looks forward to continuing to work with House and Senate leadership and members to push our comprehensive jobs creation and economic development agenda," his press secretary, Kyle Sullivan, said in a brief statement after the defeat.

Many political observers say that the freshman governor failed to develop the necessary coalition before presenting the bill to the state legislature. Patrick waited too long to seek the support of unions and local politicians who could have made the difference, says Richard McGowan, author of "The Gambling Debate" and a Boston College professor. "I think the governor learned that [casino gambling] might be a good idea, but guess what? You really have to line up your ducks well, and you have to scratch a lot of people's backs."

"It had become a personal power struggle between [DiMasi] and the governor and this was really about [DiMasi] demonstrating that he's in control of the House of Representatives," says Clyde Barrow, director for the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

With a $1.3 billion shortfall in the state's budget, DiMasi may face heightened criticism if the economy continues to deteriorate, many analysts say. The governor had projected that the three resort casinos stood to generate $400 million dollars a year in tax revenues and create 20,000 permanent jobs in the state.

The gambling debate is still far from over in the Bay State. Already state Rep. David Flynn hopes to use the casino defeat as an opportunity to push for 2,500 slot machines in Massachusetts racetracks. He proposed a similar bill in 2006 that was defeated.

It's not at all uncommon for states to pass up initial gaming proposals, says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. In 1974, for example, New Jersey voted against allowing gambling, but two years later, the legislature reconsidered, paving the way for Atlantic City to becoming a gambling mecca.

Technical issues in the bill may also been behind Thursday's defeat. By banning Internet gambling, even casino proponents may have been put off, says Dr. Schwartz, thinking that the state was trying to create a monopoly. He also faulted the bills specific outline for the creation of three casinos, arguing that the bill should have been a more general attempt to create rules and regulations for in-state gambling.

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