Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Guest Commentary: Casinos Gamble or Gambit...

WMassP&I will be hosting occasional posts offered by Central Connecticut State University Political Science Professor Jerold J. Duquette. Here is his first offering.

"The rejection of Governor Patrick’s plan to bring casinos to the Bay State has me wondering. The Governor and the Speaker of the House, Sal Dimasi, have appeared to be in a personal struggle over the issue. Dimasi appears to have bested the Governor on this one, but appearances can be deceiving.

"In the aftermath of the killing of the bill, the comments of both the Speaker and the Governor were revealing. The Governor’s argument for a proposal that many of his core supporters vigorously opposed was rhetorically forceful in public, but not necessarily as forceful behind the scenes in the legislature. While the governor indicated that a full and free debate in the House could have yielded workable compromises, Speaker Dimasi indicated that the Governor never sat down with him to specifically discuss the kinds of compromises that may have been made as a result of an open debate on the House floor. Dimasi also implied that the Governor never tried to sell the bill to him personally, which is code for – the Governor never came to the Speaker to talk turkey, or make a deal, something a strong advocate for a bill would likely do.

"Governor Patrick went through the motions on casinos and pushed the issue in a “legislative process 101” kind of way – urging a fair hearing, public debate, open legislative debate, etc. But there isn’t a lot of indication that he did the behind the scenes legwork that such a proposal would require. I’m sure most Beacon Hill insiders thought that this was a product of the strong opposition to casinos from his most committed supporters, the very folks whose tireless efforts got him elected. So, if the Governor was really gambling on casinos, as the press and his critics have claimed, he does not appear to have done as much to increase his odds as one might have expected.

"Why not? Could the answer be in his post defeat comment about “the ball [being] in the Speaker’s court now?” In the 2006 Gubernatorial election Patrick was forced (no doubt against his better judgment) to avoid taking a position on tax policy that his Republican opponent could exploit. This meant that he could not directly or forcefully speak out against the voter approved reduction of the State income tax and even had to say that “when affordable” he would support bringing it down to the 5.0% rate approved by voters. The problem with this tactic of avoidance was that it tied the Governor’s hands quite a bit when it comes to increasing state revenue, something clearly necessary in a state where local governments are drowning in cost increases. The Governor, unable to advocate for sane or rational tax policy because of the domination of a “penny wise, pound foolishness” in the state’s electorate, had to fashion a budget that would meet the increasing needs of the Commonwealth without raising taxes - enter casinos.

"The casino plan and its inclusion in the governor’s budget may have been a opening gambit intended to put the legislature in the hot seat. Having forcefully and even boastfully defeated the Governor in this apparently straight forward power struggle, the Speaker may now be exactly where the Governor wanted him – in the position of having to devise and support a way to raise state revenue, or bear the political burden of finding things to cut. In other words, the Governor has put his idea on the table and the Speaker and House have said no. Indeed, buy killing it the way they did, they have made further legislative consideration of casinos impossible until next year. Can the Speaker now turn to the Governor and demand another idea? I don’t think so. I think the ball is indeed in Dimasi’s court. The House now bears the burden of making the next move, a move that should provide some latitude or political cover for the Governor.

"For the Speaker, the lesson may be to take caution when a political adversary seems too easily outmaneuvered. As for Governor Patrick, well, maybe his game is chess."

-Jerold J. Duquette

--Webmaster addendum: Although the ball is certainly in the Speaker's Court, that may exactly where he wants it. It is impossible to know if DiMasi, a typical Boston politician, may be leaning toward some real reform in the state budget. He's wise enough to know that giving casinos and the governor the bird means he'll need a revenue solution. Maybe he might be able to use his finesse to make cuts that need to be made: cuts that neither Patrick or other General Court leaders have had the intestinal fortitude to make.

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