The Globe beat me to it, but I'm just now getting the chance to blast the state legislature for trying to increase the amount of gaming income diverted to purses at horse tracks. Both houses passed the new version of the bill, containing that change, yesterday. (As I write, there is word that they may try to back up and rework this provision.)
I ripped them previously for putting a 9% slot-parlor take in the gaming bill that passed earlier this year. That had clearly been Speaker Robert DeLeo's demand in the grand bargain worked out with Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray, so I realized that neither the senate or governor were going to remove it and ruin the deal -- no matter how universally that provision was condemned by media observers. (And it was pretty universal condemnation.)
But the bill came out of conference committee this week with an additional, massive handout to the horse tracks: 5% of the casino licenses, and an ongoing 5% of the state revenue from casinos.
Now, let me just say that A) I am, on balance, in favor of allowing destination casinos into the Commonwealth, under a careful, thought-out plan; and B) I'm not only a casino gambler myself, I've been a fan of horse racing since I was a tot. I love it. I love when the state boosts the purses, which not only increases the quality of the racing, but also makes the event more enjoyable by bringing more people to the track. (For example, when this state brought back the MassCap handicap.)
I also really like baseball cards. And ice cream. But I digress; we're not talking about funneling massive amounts of state money to those industries. Although I suppose we might be someday, after the rise to Speaker of someone with good friends in the baseball card or ice cream industry.
Why the hell not? Ice cream, I'd wager (once wagering is legal), employs far more people in Massachusetts than horse racing. Seriously, Massachusetts eats a lot of ice cream, much of it made in state.
As a standalone item, increasing the purse contribution (and breeder's associations contribution, which I believe is also included) is a perfectly fair debate to have -- each year, in the state budget, weighed against other items. For reasons I mentioned above, I'd probably personally support some increase, over an ice cream subsidy, but probably below a tax break for baseball-card expenditures. But that's me. Budgets, as they say, are debates over values and priorities; those are mine, but I strongly suspect that most of the Commonwealth would put the horse-track purses significantly below ice cream -- let alone local aid for schools and police and such.
No matter; we're not Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. DeLeo is. And he says shoveling mountains of state gelt on the horse tracks is necessary, because the horse racing industry might be harmed, or killed, by the new casinos. Hey, I get it -- maybe someone with a close connection to the alternative-weekly industry will become Speaker someday, because I've heard some rumors that the government's going to invent and promulgate some sort of global digital-information-sharing technology that's might prove harmful to print media publications.
Last session, DeLeo demanded no-bid slot licenses for the horse and dog tracks, again to save those industries -- particularly galling in the case of dogs, since the citizenry had just voted decisively to put that industry out of business, with or without the help of casinos. At least saving the state's horse-racing business doesn't run as directly contrary to the expressed demand of the populace -- but on the other hand I don't get any sense that anyone in the state has much interest in its survival, beyond me, a small number of other remaining horse players, and those working in the business.
But all of that wouldn't be so eye-poppingly awful, if there was any perception, by anyone in the Commonwealth, that anyone's opinion about this matters other than DeLeo's -- or indeed that anybody else under the golden dome even agrees with him on the issue. Maybe, maybe, it's not really as bad as it looks, but it sure looks, to everybody, like the entire legislature is being held hostage, and has been held hostage for the past two or three years, until they all agree to back a truck full of cash up to the doors of a small number of the Speaker's friends.
Mind you, my personal opinion is that DeLeo is basically a good guy, and I don't believe he's getting any kickbacks or anything liike that. I think he genuinely thinks he's doing the right thing, and believes that it's his prerogative as Speaker, or even his duty, to make sure the right thing is done, as he sees it.
But he's horribly damaging the credibility of his office and the House. Or what's left of that credibility. He is doing exactly the worst thing, at the worst time, in the worst place, on the worst issue.
Someone asked me whether I thought it was fair to link this to yesterday's news that DeLeo's predecessor, Sal DiMasi, will report to prison later this month to serve his punishment for funnelling large wads of state bills to his friends. I replied that there are two important differences. Unlike DiMasi, DeLeo is not getting paid by the recipients for the favor. On the other hand, the Commonwealth would have at least gotten some software out of the DiMasi deal (albeit unwanted and unnecessary).
OK, that's a little mean. And I really want to slam not just DeLeo, who is doing exactly what you would expect him to do, but the spineless, pathetic, delusional representatives who either don't know how atrocious this looks, or know but won't speak up.
It already looked atrocious that they gave the speakership to DiMasi's chosen successor, and that they then stood behind DeLeo last year to support him in blaming the governor for not agreeing to hand free money-printing machines to his race-track buddies. Then it looked God-awful this year -- as news outlets across the Commonwealth tried to explain to the thick-headed pols -- when the new bill included, in lieu of the money-printing machines, a statutarily guaranteed pipeline of money.
I'm not sure what the trade was in conference committee, but the presumption is that there was something in the senate version of the gaming bill (or perhaps in the senate version of some other bill) that the house didn't want. So, the senate asked what they could give the house in exchange, and the answer was: a much bigger money pipeline to the horse tracks.
Presented with this preposterous and outrageous solution, representatives apparently did not pipe up to Bobby that he's gone daft if he thinks they're going to tell their constituents that they're taking money -- pardon me, that they're taking even more money -- from the local library, or school, and handing it to the horse tracks. Not just once, but forever and ever. Just because the Speaker said to.
"Just because the Speaker said to" really should be a big flashing red-light siren for state reps (and everyone else on Beacon Hill) these days.
Five months ago, when I wrote that we should abolish the state house of representatives altogether, a lot of people thought I was kidding. I was not.
This kind of horseshit is why.