Thursday, March 20, 2008

"No Pressure, no deals, nothing"

This is Speaker Sal DiMasi in response to questions surrounding the odd and controversial vote by the legislature's Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies (who named this committee?) to recommend that Governor Patrick's casino bill "ought not to pass."

But DiMasi's claim is beyond incredible. It is hilarious. It is medacious.

After weeks of what can accurately be described as a full court press, with the Speaker himself calling individual members into his office to personally lobby against the bill -- members stating publicly to the state house press corps of the intense pressure -- the Committee, led by DiMasi's ardently anti-casino Rep. Dan Bosley, initially comes up with a 9-9 tie vote?

A tie? Incredible.

And why the tie, with an odd number of members?

Because one House member, Representative Robert L. Rice Jr. (D - Gardner) ABSTAINED FROM VOTING.
On the most controversial and far-reaching public policy issue to come before the legislature since gay marriage, one duly elected representative of the people couldn't pull the trigger. Unless Rep. Rice has a clear and obvious conflict of interest that would lawfully prevent him from voting, he should be taken into the public arena and flogged.

With one profile in cowardice taken care of, the focus falls on Republican Rep. Richard Ross, whose district includes one of the states struggling race tracks. The Plainridge facility is not a typical thoroughbred racing facility. It is for trotters (or "standardbreds")-- a segment of the racing industry that is to thoroughbred racing what
pentanque is to Major League Baseball.

Here's what Ross
had to say:

Another member, Rep. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, told The Associated Press he dropped his support for the bill after the owners of the Plainridge Racecourse, a 91-acre harness racing facility in his district, said they would rather take a shot at the House passing a separate bill to install slot machines at the state's four racetracks.

"I got a loud and clear message from my district ... that they really wanted me to vote for the adverse report," Ross said. "Really, until the eleventh hour, 59th minute, I was on the phone."

Similar slot machine bills have failed in past years, but Ross said DiMasi promised he would allow it to come to the House floor again.

DiMasi promised he would allow a racetrack slots bill to come to the floor again.

DiMasi's response to that question?

"That's a question for another day," DiMasi said when asked about the prospect of the slot machine bill coming up for a vote. ...

DiMasi denied putting undue pressure on lawmakers or making any promises to help ensure the committee vote against Patrick's bill.

"Not at all," DiMasi said, adding that he made "no deals, no bargains, nothing" to members of the committee.

But Ross indicated that he had met with DiMasi before casting his vote and had also been told by the Plainridge people that DiMasi "has promised them that we would have a dialogue in the next couple of weeks on ... the slots bill and that we would actually bring it before the membership alone and it would have nothing to do with the casinos."

That sounds like a deal to Ross. Don't bet on this man in a poker game, folks.

So, it appears, at least this chapter of the Great Casino Debate has come down to a rather typical phenomenon -- one representative with an important business constituent representing his "district" (on the basis of a promise from the Speaker that he claims he didn't make) and one other not representing anyone at all.

There is another element to this vote that should deeply trouble observers of democracy. Legislative Committee votes are to be taken in open sessions where the public and the press are able to observe the process. In this instance, however -- for reasons yet unexplained -- "two votes were taken by email and phone" and counted inside closed offices instead of committee rooms.

This is how Democracy works on major public policy matters in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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