DeLeo not giving up, calls gambling bill's path 'very difficult'

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, AUG. 3, 2010….....Speaker Robert DeLeo declared the critical-condition gambling bill still breathing Tuesday morning, as Plainridge Racecourse laid off 157 workers and blamed Gov. Deval Patrick’s refusal to support racetrack slot machines.

DeLeo said Patrick’s decision to send expanded gambling legislation back with an amendment effectively killed the prospect of 15,000 jobs, but on Tuesday morning said the bill is not dead though its prospects are “very difficult.”

During a media availability in Winthrop, reporters asked DeLeo if legislation authorizing three casinos and two racetrack slot venues was dead.

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” DeLeo answered, according to a transcript provided to the News Service. “I think I’m extremely disappointed at the governor’s filing of the amendment. I think at this point, not only members of the House but the Senate, but myself in particular are going to have to take a step back, talk to membership, see what their feeling is relative to whether it be moving forward, coming back, whatever it may be. So, as of right now until the session’s over there is nothing dead. But I’d have to say it’s probably very difficult once the governor filed an amendment that was pretty much tantamount to filing a veto. So, I’m not sure.”

Formal sessions, the arena for considering controversial bills like the gambling bill, are over for the year and the only option for taking up the governor's amendment would be a rare return to formal sessions, a step Senate President Therese Murray has said not enough of her members support.

DeLeo said he had compromised in reaching the final details of the bill and was not willing to compromise further.

Asked whether the only choice left was whether or not to call lawmakers back into session, DeLeo said, “As I’m standing here right now, I’m not sure. I think what I need to do is to again to take a step back, talk to the members of the House as to their willingness whether to come back or whatever action to make."

DeLeo said some members had already signaled a willingness to return to session and continue work on the bill.

Plainridge Racecourse announced the layoffs, 10 percent of its workforce, in a bitter statement from Plainridge CEO Gary Piontkowski.

“This is a very painful, and for me personally, upsetting decision,” said Plainridge Racecourse president Gary Piontkowski in a press release. Plainridge has seen a decline in live racing and simulcasting revenues of 23 percent since 2007, he said.

“Anticipating that the Commonwealth would enact expanded gaming in this session, our owners resisted job reductions to improve our balance sheet and, in fact, Plainridge even added associates to work on facility expansion efforts as a result of the new gaming potential,” Piontkowski said. “Regrettably however, like any business, Plainridge must align its operational decisions with the political reality as it is, as opposed to as it hopes, and that reality is that this legislation is dead.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker blamed Patrick for allowing the gambling bill to surge to the fore of the state’s policy docket and said Patrick had done too little to manage the debate.

“The reason this is such a big deal is the complete lack of anything else,” Baker said at a press conference outside the State House, beginning to yell. “We have no other agenda!”

Baker said he would support one resort casino and roughly 2,000 slot machines open to bid, with no advantage for the racetracks to the slots, while calling the facilities “pretty well positioned to win on a bid like that.”

Baker said he did not think lawmakers should return unless they planned to tackle other bills.

“If they want to come back into session, let’s talk about doing something about pension reform. Let’s talk about doing something about municipal health insurance,” Baker said during a press conference outside the State House. He said, “Unless we’re going to talk about the other stuff, I would say move on.”

Baker echoed Patrick’s frustration that the gambling debate had consumed so much time and space on the Hill, pointing to fiscal and economic problems the new industry would not fully address.

“The fact that it’s the only thing we’re talking about is a pretty clear indicator that people aren’t focusing on the larger picture, which is 100,000 jobs lost, a $1 billion-dollar budget deficit, and a $2 billion-dollar deficit next year, and no real reform on much of anything over the course of the past couple of years,” he said.

Patrick and lawmakers have touted changes to the state’s ethics, pension and transportation laws, and Patrick has on his desk bills reorganizing economic development agencies, making criminal record access and sentencing law changes, and implementing changes to ease the sting of rising small business health insurance premiums.

Amid the furor over casinos and slots, Patrick extended a lifeline to the state's struggling racetracks, signing on Sunday a bill to extend their ability to broadcast out-of-state races, just hours after that power was scheduled to expire.

The bill, which sped through the House and Senate Saturday evening, when it became clear that expanded gambling faced an uphill climb to passage, gives the four facilities – horse tracks Suffolk Downs and Plainridge Racecourse, as well as the former dog tracks Wonderland and Raynham-Taunton Park – another full year of so-called simulcasting authority.

For Raynham and Wonderland, simulcasting represents its primary source of income, after voters in 2008 supported a ban on greyhound racing. A simulcasting extension was included in expanded gambling legislation that also sanctioned three casinos and two racetrack slot facilities.

Evaluations of the gambling legislation’s status Tuesday differed, but none were optimistic.

The gambling bill is “as good as dead,” Sen. Richard Ross, whose district includes Plainridge and who served on the conference committee that produced the bill, said in a statement.

Like DeLeo, Ross said he was disappointed by Patrick’s decision to return the bill hours after he’d received it.

“Governor Patrick knows how Beacon Hill works and he knows sending this bill back amended means the bill is as good as dead,” Ross said in a statement. “Governor Patrick has not only let the employees at the race tracks down, he has let the people of the Commonwealth down as well.”

Baker told reporters, “It certainly looks dead.”

Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, Baker’s running mate, said, “I can’t see a scenario in which the Legislature decides to return to do it.”

Gambling bill opponents Sen. Susan Tucker and Rep. Carl Sciortino were not available for comment.

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