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Yvonne Abraham

A real pain in the neck

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 18, 2011

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Excuse me while I adjust my neck brace. I’m getting spasms just from looking at some legislators’ casino votes.

In 2008, House members were dead-set against expanded gambling in Massachusetts. Led by Speaker Sal DiMasi, a casino opponent, they demolished Governor Deval Patrick’s casino dreams, 106 votes to 48.

On Wednesday night, led by Speaker Bob DeLeo, a slots evangelist, lawmakers embraced casinos - by an even bigger margin, 123 votes to 32. Scores of former opponents were among the yea voters, including some who had trafficked in anticasino fire-and-brimstone three short years ago.

It was a festival of flipping that actually began a year ago when a slew of casino opponents caved. The reversals have been sharp enough to cause whiplash. Now, bringing casinos here is no small thing. Once we’ve done it, we can’t undo it (or control it either, but that’s another column). The industry will transform Massachusetts forever.

So, I can’t imagine legislators took last week’s roll call lightly. I can’t believe their votes were based on anything but the merits of the issues and the dictates of conscience. I mean, they wouldn’t vote with the speaker on something this important just to remain in his good graces, right?

Well, Representative Ellen Story would.

When the Amherst Democrat and gambling opponent first flipped last year, she made no bones about her motivation, now that she has cracked DeLeo’s leadership circle.

“This is the bill he has cared about more than any other bill,’’ she said. “My sense is that there may well be consequences for people voting against this bill - particularly people in his inner circle.’’

Is Story the most honest politician on Beacon Hill, or a favor-currying outlier? I called some other House flippers to find out. Oddly enough, only two called back. Amazingly, both told me the risk of disappointing DeLeo had no influence on their votes, last year or last week.

One was John Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat who voted no three years ago because he feared we would have problems with compulsive gambling. (We will: Michael Jonas, in CommonWealth Magazine, points out that casinos depend on problem gamblers for a whopping 35 percent of their take.)

Scibak’s was not “a philosophical change,’’ he insisted: The bill he voted for includes support for gambling addicts. And in a rotten economy, it promises more revenue - much of which is currently going to Connecticut.

Peter Kocot opposed casinos three years ago because he worried they would eat away at the state lottery. But he said the new legislation will make sure casinos push sales of state lottery tickets

Besides, “things have dramatically changed since 2008,’’ said the Northampton Democrat. Like Scibak, he cited the economy, and cuts to services he cares about.

DeLeo himself voted to scuttle casinos under DiMasi. He may be less of an arm-twister than DiMasi, but the speaker benefits from decades of proud Beacon Hill history, which has schooled legislators from both chambers in the art of favor-seeking contortionism.

I wish I’d heard back from Michael Costello, because I’d like to know why he reversed himself so dramatically. Three years ago, the Newburyport Democrat was vehemently opposed to casinos, for reasons that were recession-proof. He worried that legalizing casinos here would force New Hampshire to follow suit, and that his constituents would head north to gamble, leaving his area with the negative effects of gambling and few of its benefits.

Speaking on the House floor in 2008, Costello said the state had weathered tough economic times before, and could do so again without resorting to casinos. He cast his stance as a courageous one, going against the wishes of unions. “We gotta take tough votes here, folks,’’ he said.

Few took the tough vote Wednesday. But I’m sure it was for all the right reasons.

Ouch! Please pass the Ben-Gay.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com