House and Senate leaders today attempted to jump-start stalled negotiations over legalizing Vegas-style resort casinos, even as advocates for a variety of other measures grew increasingly concerned that the two-year legislative session will end Saturday with major issues still unresolved.
After weeks of publicly trashing each other's proposals and hosting negotiations that went nowhere, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo today met with key Democratic lawmakers from both chambers to try to hash out a casinos compromise. They did not immediately make a deal, and acknowledged that it remains unclear whether they will do so.
"Would I definitively state 'Yes, we're going to have a bill by the end of the week?' No, I probably couldn't say that," DeLeo told reporters as he entered the meeting, which was called by Murray and took place in her office. "But I think we're giving it our best shot."
Murray's spokesman, David Falcone, said the leaders planned to work into the night to try to resolve their differences.
"They had a discussion on the broader issues," Falcone said of the hour-long initial meeting in Murray's office, which included key Democratic negotiators from both chambers, but excluded Republicans. "They expect to hear back from the Speaker later tonight. The lines of communication are still left open."
But the two sides apparently could not even agree on whether they were still talking. Just before 7 p.m., DeLeo's spokesman, Seth Gitell, issued a statement saying talks were over for the day.
"Today House and Senate leaders engaged in productive discussions aimed at maximizing local aid revenue and preserving jobs in our state," Gitell said. "After hours of talks, work on the bill will continue in the morning. "
The legislative session is scheduled to end Saturday, with several key issues — from a state sales tax holiday to a gun control measure — stalled by the dispute over expanded gambling.
Advocates for other issues have grown frustrated, and many observers, both on and off Beacon Hill, have criticized what seems like a singular focus for the state's lawmakers.
"If you're on Beacon Hill and you have issues pending ... certainly you're paying attention to what's happening with the gambling bill because that's having an impact on a whole lot of other activity," said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which is pushing both a change in the health care law and a sales tax holiday for mid-August.
John Rosenthal, president and founder of Stop Handgun Violence, which is championing a measure to restrict gun purchases, called the focus on the casino bill "a shame."
"It seems like this gun violence prevention legislation is taking a back seat to, frankly, a casino bill which could lead to more crime and gun violence," he said. "It's ironic."
And advocates for changing the criminal records law, who have won support from the House and Senate, are suddenly concerned that victory may be slipping from their hands. Tomorrow, they plan a rally on the State House steps in an effort to call attention to their cause.
"We want to make sure that the Legislature is reminded that this is an issue that is impacting people on a daily basis," said Aaron Tanaka, executive director of the Boston Workers Alliance, who is part of a larger coalition that favors a change in the criminal records law. "It would just be a shame for the Legislature to let politics get in the way."
Governor Deval Patrick, just back from a trip visiting Massachusetts troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, held a news conference at which he tried to prod lawmakers to focus on other issues in addition to casinos. Patrick had said recently that he wanted to be directly involved in casino negotiations, but more recently, he has attempted to distance himself from the talks.
"There's a concern, given the fact that there are what, five days, six days, for an awful lot to get done," Patrick told reporters, when asked about the gun control bill today. "And it may not get done."
Tension over casinos, bubbling all year, intensified last week when DeLeo offered a compromise proposal, and Murray seemed to sit on it for more then a day, and then dismiss it without a counter-offer, angering the speaker. The two are divided over whether to authorize slot machines at race tracks, which DeLeo supports and Murray opposes.
The House passed a bill in April that would authorize two destination casinos and allow slot machines at the state's four race tracks. The Senate passed a bill earlier this month that would allows three casinos, but no slots at the tracks. The sides have spent most of the month of July in closed-door negotiations, occasionally trading accusations that the other side was to blame for the stalemate. Patrick, who supports the Senate's plan, has signaled that he would be willing to veto a measure if it includes too many racetrack slot machines.
He and Murray have called the proposal to give slot licenses to the tracks valuable "no-bid contracts" and have argued that they do not provide the same economic benefit of full-blown casinos. DeLeo, however, argues that the slots would save track worker jobs and provide a quicker boost in revenue to cities and towns that have suffered through the economic crisis.
Murray, meanwhile, told the Cape Cod Times over the weekend that she believed slot machines "suck all the economic environment from within 20 miles, and you really don't get any jobs from it."
DeLeo denied that the casino debate is holding up other issues, saying, "Each individual piece of legislation is separate form the other."
Still, when Murray was asked today about a sales tax holiday proposal, she conceded that "I haven't thought about it today."
Republicans, who were not invited to the casino talks today, say it is important for the public to see the Beacon Hill impasse, which they blamed on Democrats.
"I think it's good that people are actually getting to see the dysfunctionality of this building," said Senator Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.
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