The Casino Debate is About to Get (More) Heated

1187963168Despite the fact that House Speaker Sal DiMasi said far too much time and energy was being spent on the issue, the casino debate refuses to go away. A few weeks back, DiMasi told everyone to cool it and publicly stated that there would be no vote on casinos until after the New Year. Among other things, it was a not-so-subtle slap at Gov. Deval Patrick and his staff, who have been all about casinos recently.

A lot of people thought that would be that for a while. And a lot of people were wrong.

Not only has Gov. Patrick not moved on to other things, he’s now pushing ahead with a plan that would give him Putin-like powers over the gaming industry in Massachusetts by creating a panel that would determine who gets to build casinos and who doesn’t. Which is hilarious, because we don’t have a gaming industry yet. It’s a total cart-before-the-horse maneuver that’s sure to enrage DiMasi and the rest of the anti-casino faction while keeping the issue front and center.

Oh boy. This is getting really good.

First, let’s take a look at the Governor’s plan, which he will formally present to the Legislature today. (Incidentally, I bet DiMasi is plotting his revenge as we speak really thrilled about all this.)

Governor Deval Patrick will file a casino gambling bill today that gives him control of a seven-member gaming authority that would auction off licenses and regulate the casinos.

Under the proposal, the state treasurer and the state auditor would sit on the board of what would be called the Massachusetts Gaming Control Authority. The five remaining members would be appointed by the governor.

Wow. That’s ballsy, and the type of power grab that would make the aforementioned Russian President proud. Appointing the five remaining members would give the Governor unspeakable control over which companies end up getting the go-ahead to build casinos that figure to bring in billions. Why? Because the highest bidder(s) won’t necessarily win the contract(s). That’s the genius part (if you’re pro-casino or a Patrick supporter, that is). Instead, it will be up to the MGCA — ostensibly manned by Patrick sycophants — to determine who wins and who loses.

Prospective bidders would be required to pay $350,000 to have their casino license applications reviewed. In addition, for their application even to be considered, bidders would have to offer the state a minimum licensing fee of $200 million and agree to pay at least 27 percent of their gross annual revenues to the state, or $100 million a year, whichever is larger.

The highest bidder will not necessarily be awarded a license, the bill says. The authority will score proposals by applying about a dozen criteria, including the number of jobs that will be created, the infrastructure improvements, the use of local and small businesses for goods and service, and the level of investment. The bidder who provides “the highest and best value” will win the license, the bill says.

Sounds pretty subjective, and a lot of people aren’t crazy about it. The really funny part? Among the people who think it’s a terrible idea to give a select few so much power also happens to be a guy who, if the Governor’s plan is approved, would serve on the MGCA.

State Treasurer Tim Cahill, who is also the chairman of the State Lottery Commission, would be automatically appointed to the MGCA. He’s not at all thrilled about that, and he’s already speaking out against the Governor’s plan. And therein lies the comedy: The Governor would have known that Cahill wasn’t on board with the idea if he had bothered to ask the Treasurer what he thought about the plan. Which he didn’t.

Nor did he ask State Auditor Joseph DeNucci, who would be the other automatic appointment (though DeNucci has come out in favor of the Governor’s proposal).

“I don’t think it’s a good business model to have elected officials as part of the oversight process,” Cahill said. “This is the most lucrative license anyone will ever bestow on anyone in Massachusetts.”

In addition, Cahill said, it would not be appropriate for a lottery official to regulate casinos because slot machines and table games would compete with the lottery.

“Having a foot in the two doors doesn’t make sense,” Cahill said. “There could be a conflict, and I want to see the lottery protected.”

Patrick has long contended that three casinos would produce some $400 million a year in tax revenue for the Commonwealth, in addition to 20,000 new jobs. Those numbers, not surprisingly, have been hotly contested. To be honest, I don’t really care if the numbers are right or wrong—I just want to gamble. (Hit me!) But, then, I’m a degenerate.

The more interesting thing here has nothing to do with whether or not legalized casino gambling will benefit the state and everything to do with what’s shaping up to be one hell of a political brawl. From the very beginning, the Governor has come under fire from the anti-gaming lobby as well as a number of high-powered pols on Beacon Hill, including the Speaker, and yet he hasn’t backed down.

That’s significant. The beginning of his term was plagued by mistakes and gaffes that rendered the Governor little more than an easy joke. While he was trying to get himself out of that mess, DiMasi and Sen. President Therese Murray were busy running the Commonwealth. And now? The Governor seems to be sending a message about who’s really in charge of the agenda around here. Or at least he’s trying to.

The great part is that DiMasi isn’t one to back down, either, and he’s been telling governors what to do for a lot longer than Patrick has been on Beacon Hill. Which is why this thing is going to get very nasty before anything is decided. And boy is it going to be fun to watch, because there are few things more entertaining than an old-fashioned, Massachusetts-style political war.

Now, where’s the cocktail waitress when you need one?