Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Only a game

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's proposal for casino gambling went down in flames, we all know. And for those who like to view politics as a "contact sport" the proposal has to be seen as going under the 'L' column. Come to think of it, I'm not sure anyone is looking at this as anything other than another contest that the Governor failed.

A game, you might say.

With the bill voted down and the issue dead for at least a year, Speaker Sal Dimasi has announced —post mortem— that he supposedly 'coulda/woulda' entertained a more open debate and discussion of possible amendments, if only the Governor had asked him nice.

Yeah, right.

"We have not given this bill due process," argued Martin J. Walsh, a Democrat from Boston, as the Speaker gaveled the debate closed. "We have not had a fair hearing on this bill. We owe it to the people of the Commonwealth, the people of Massachusetts, and the people of our districts to take more time."

The response: "bang bang —you're dead."

The bill was voted down 108 to 46.

There may be a few people who are genuinely pleased at the bill's failure because they genuinely objected to the idea of the state funding itself through such a corrupt and corrupting industry. They argued that they were defending "the culture and character of the state" and that they were looking out for those compulsive gamblers among us who might find themselves exploited by the new gaming. I can respect that...

Someone should remind these people that they forgot to show up with their righteous indignation when the state lottery commission —at just about the same time the legislature was delivering us from temptation —launched its Keno-to-go game. The commission announced that it expects a "$100 million boost" to sales with this new expansion of the existing Keno game —you know the one. It's that game where people in bars stand there gaping at a television screen. The drawings take place approximately 4 minutes apart, Monday through Saturday 5:04 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. —and Sundays from noon to 1 a.m..

Keno-to-go will allow gamblers —er, patrons of the commonwealth to purchase tickets in a way similar to the other once daily games that the lottery runs. "Customers" will be able to check later online to see if they won. (Now, they'll have time to go to work, or even sleep.) They can place bets in up to 30 consecutive drawings by simply checking the appropriate box when they place their bet. Mass Lottery Executive Director Mark Cavanagh commented, “Sometimes customers can’t get to their favorite place to play Keno and this will give them a chance to win wherever they may be.”

Yes, and the same Speaker DiMasi, who announced a "victory for the people of Massachusetts" against the "monied interests" when the casino bill was defeated, has also pledged to give a prompt and fair hearing (and vote) to a bill advanced by his dear friend Representative David Flynn of Bridgewater, the longest-serving member in the House. The bill would allow each of the state's four existing racetracks to install 2,500 slot machines.

The Governor had expressed strong opposition to the idea of these slots when they were discussed as a possible attachment to the casino bill. Perhaps he had actually paid some heed to those concerns about his own proposal and its danger to compulsive problem gamblers. Perhaps he saw that as a concern in balance at a brand new resort casino, and less so at an existing horse track. But that's just the Governor.

With the casino proposal dead and the state's budget aching for revenue, Representative Flynn likes his chances with his slot machines proposal. Now, he observes, "I'm the only game in town."

Maybe, he is. And maybe Deval Patrick has learned a few hard lessons about the "game" on Beacon Hill. Maybe all that talk about engaged citizenry and actual open and earnest public debate about public policy —maybe that's just not how "the game" is played. But then again, as the state confronts a budget shortfall, estimated at $1.3 billion for the coming year, and many of the Governor's other proposals to address revenue still wait in legislative limbo (for now more than a year) —as communities all around the state confront the decreased resources that come of falling housing value and rising basic costs—as schools and libraries, fire departments and police forces —as these are all challenged to do more and more with less and less, just maybe it will dawn on us —and on Beacon Hill —that this isn't a game at all.

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