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Casinos proposal on brink of defeat

Close verdict by panel against Patrick plan 'I can count,' governor says of today's vote

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 20, 2008

In a day of frenzied, behind-the-scenes wrangling, secret vote counts, and last-minute deals, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi orchestrated a narrow committee vote yesterday against Governor Deval Patrick's resort casino proposal, setting up certain defeat today by the full House of one of the governor's cornerstone economic initiatives.

The committee vote was closer than had been expected as recently as last week, as senators and Republicans on the committee swung the governor's way over the final two days. After an initial vote yesterday produced a tie and a parliamentary dispute, House leaders delayed a final vote for four hours, which gave them time to come up with something more decisive.

Ultimately, DiMasi engineered the 10-to-8 vote against Patrick's plan by changing the vote of a Republican House member, Richard J. Ross of Wrentham, at literally the last minute. After the intense arm-twisting and DiMasi's victory, the only question for today was how badly Patrick's bill will be defeated in the House.

"I can count," Patrick said last night, acknowledging the inevitable. "I can count."

Over the day, Beacon Hill was gripped by a series of confusing events played out behind closed doors. Two votes were taken by e-mail and phone yesterday and counted in House and Senate offices instead of committee rooms, after members of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies heard 13 hours of testimony Tuesday.

The vote means that when the House convenes today, it will be deciding whether to uphold or overturn the committee's negative recommendation. Overturning a committee recommendation is unusual, and DiMasi has vowed it will not happen in this instance. The Senate has generally been considered in favor of the bill.

The dispute over casinos and other issues between the governor and the House speaker has become the dominant feature of Beacon Hill politics so far in the governor's early term, and the hard feelings appeared to bubble up again yesterday.

Patrick denounced the process that resulted in the death of his initiative as "midnight maneuvers."

"It's disappointing, but not surprising," Patrick said. "The process - given the midnight maneuvers last night, and backing and forthing today - speaks for itself."

He also suggested DiMasi has not kept a promise to provide a full and fair debate in the House.

"You can't have an open debate on the House floor with the maneuvered and engineered outcome from the committee like the one we had," he added.

During a brief press conference, DiMasi defended the process as "full and fair."

"There is going to be a full debate on the governor's bill," DiMasi said.

He also denied putting any pressure on lawmakers or making promises to help secure a negative committee vote. "Not at all," he said. "No deals, no bargains, nothing."

An initial tie committee vote that would also have resulted in a negative recommendation yesterday was challenged by Patrick and his allies on the committee on parliamentary grounds. DiMasi was forced to cancel a public appearance yesterday morning as he continued to twist arms and seek sufficient votes to win a clear negative recommendation on the governor's bill.

By 4 p.m., he had persuaded a single Republican lawmaker, Ross, to change his vote.

Ross has been a key figure since Tuesday evening when, as hours of testimony continued and it became clear from private head counts that the committee was evenly divided, DiMasi entered the hearing room and sat in the front row, sternly looking over the members for about 15 minutes. Later in the night DiMasi called several legislators into his office, including Ross, to try to pressure them to change.

Ross said he had given his word to the governor last week that he would vote to send the casino legislation out favorably. "I'm sticking with the governor," Ross said Tuesday night. "I think Sal's very surprised."

Despite what DiMasi said, Ross indicated a deal was behind his change. Questioned by reporters, Ross said he switched his position from agreeing with the governor after speaking by phone with Plainridge Racecourse president Gary Piontkowski.

"It was down to the eleventh hour, the 59th minute," said Ross, a first-term House member from Wrentham who also said he met with DiMasi twice in 16 hours. "Ultimately I owe my vote to the people in the district, how they wish me to vote."

Ross said DiMasi indicated he would allow the House to consider a bill to install slot machines at the state's four racetracks, including Plainridge. Similar slots legislation has failed miserably in prior votes, but Ross said DiMasi promised he would allow it to come to the House floor again.

As events unfolded yesterday, even some lawmakers were befuddled. Legislator shuttled in and out of the office of Representative Daniel E. Bosley, the House chairman of the Economic Development Committee.

"We don't know what's going to happen," said Representative Ellen Story, Democrat of Amherst and a committee member, just before the final vote was announced. "The phone is ringing a lot."

Senator Bruce E. Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester, accused Bosley of stifling debate and making decisions without consulting committee members. The two votes were taken by e-mail, and the first vote was never officially announced. With the exception of listening to testimony, none of the committee's deliberations were conducted in public.

"I would have rather had the committee reconvene in the light of day after a marathon meeting and evaluate our options," Tarr said. ". . . I would have liked the process to have been a little bit more democratic."

But others shrugged over how the Beacon Hill gears turned on the casino debate.

"To call it arm-twisting isn't fair," said Representative Bradford Hill, an Ipswich Republican who voted in favor. "This is politics."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

The proposal to license three resort casinos in the state is a key part of Governor Deval Patrick's economic policy.

BUDGET BLOW

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