JC / Railbird

State Issues Archive

Slots Losers

As maddening, petty, and inept as I found New York state politics during the four years I lived in Brooklyn — particularly when it came to anything having to do with the Aqueduct racino or OTB — the explanation for the ostensibly irrational often lay in asking, cui bono? Because someone was usually, pretty nakedly, making out in campaign cash, political power, or patronage jobs. Not so in Massachusetts state politics, which are no less maddening, etc., for reasons that more often seem opaque, personal, or tribal.

Take, for instance, the apparently dead expanded gaming legislation. Never before, in almost two decades of debate, has Massachusetts come so close to allowing casinos and racinos. In the final hours of the legislative session on July 31, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing three casinos and two racetrack slots licenses. The Senate approved the same, two votes shy of a veto-proof margin. The governor, up for re-election, said he’d accept three casinos (his original stance), but only one racino, a compromise position he then backed off, returning the final bill with an amendment effectively killing racetrack slots. Explained Patrick of his reversal:

“We do this over and over again in the Commonwealth: We yield to the short-term interests of a few powerful people, and we set aside the long-term, best economic and social interests of the Commonwealth.”

There are those holding out hope that the legislature will be called back into session and that a resolution will be reached. I’d price that happening as a longshot so long the tote board tops out at 99-1. House leader Robert DeLeo — whose district includes Suffolk Downs and Wonderland, and who’s expended tremendous political capital accomplishing more than anyone ever has on the issue — has dug in, insisting on two racinos. “Asking me to go further than that is truly unreasonable,” he told the Boston Globe. Senate president Therese Murray is skeptical a deal could be reached, and quietly, stubbornly opposes calling lawmakers back.

Meanwhile, Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track, has already announced layoffs. Suffolk Downs has made no statements, but the rumors about the track’s future are wild and ominous.

Cui bono? No one.

2:45 PM Addendum: Tweets @jenmontfort, “It’s just so disappointing to be so close and to let political tomfoolery (on ALL sides) get in the way.” Exactly. And yet, it’s hardly surprising. This is the state, after all, where tomfoolery once led to the simulcasting law expiring on the eve of the Florida Derby.


12/10/08 Update: More on the alleged pay-to-play scheme involving a horseracing bill this morning — “I’m shocked, disappointed and befuddled,” said Lanny Brooks, executive director of the Illinois HBPA. “This is a bill that we had every expectation would be signed within a week or two.” Also being reported — “before signing the bill, the U.S. Attorney’s office charged Tuesday that the governor wanted $100,000 campaign contribution, reportedly from a racetrack owner.” No confirmation on that last detail.

As if the story of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich being arrested on corruption charges wasn’t juicy enough, there’s a small horseracing angle. From the Justice Department news briefing on the case:

A second example [of pay-to-play] is legislation that is pending concerning horseracing. There is a bill that I believe sits on the governor’s desk that would take money from casino revenues and divert a percentage of it to horseracing tracks. While this was pending, the interceptions show that the governor was told that one person who he was seeking to have raise $100,000 also was working with a person who was seeking that money to have a bill pending.
And the governor was told that the person who wanted that bill — from whom they wanted money — was told the following: that he needed to get his contribution. And the quote was, “Look, there is a concern that there is going to be some skittishness if your bill gets signed because of the timeliness of the commitment,” closed quote. Then the person told the contributor, the money, quote, “got to be in now,” closed quote.
And when the governor was told this part of the conversation, his response was, “Good.”
Shortly thereafter, the person who was trying to get the contribution from the person who had the bill pending suggested that the governor call the person directly, that it would be better to get the call personally from the governor, quote, “from a pressure point of view,” closed quote, and the governor agreed.
As we sit here now, as far as we know, that bill sits on the governor’s desk.

The bill, which grew out of an earlier bill mandating casinos share revenues with the state racing industry and would release $80 million from an escrow fund to racetracks, passed the Illinois legislature last month. “[State Rep. Jay Hoffman] said Gov. Rod Blagojevich has always been supportive of the horseracing industry and he expects the governor will sign the bill” (Belleville News Democrat). Sounds like Blagojevich would have been happy to do that, at a time convenient for “Contributor 1.” (And who could that have been?)
Related: Ray Paulick catches readers up on the racing roots of Illinois corruption.

De Francis Says He’d Forgo %

I can’t believe the Bug Boys didn’t jump on this story: Ace reporter John Scheinman reports in the Washington Post today that outgoing Maryland Jockey Club executive Joe De Francis would relinquish his rights to slot machine profits if it would help gaming legislation pass in the state legislature:

“Sure, absolutely,” De Francis said. “I can’t speak for my partners, but I can speak for me. In order for [the Maryland racetracks] to be viable, the playing field has got to be leveled and slots have to come to Maryland to allow the Maryland Jockey Club to be competitive with Delaware Park, Charles Town and Philadelphia Park.”

Magna announced on Monday that it had exercised its option to buy the remaining 49% interest in the Maryland Jockey Club held by De Francis and his sister, Karin De Francis, a deal that did not affect an agreement between De Francis and Magna entitling him and partners to future slot profits. The share of gaming proceeds due to racetrack operators has been an issue in previous attempts to pass Maryland slots legislation.

In slots news further up on the East Coast, both Boston mayor Tom Menino and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick have shot down a proposal floated by Suffolk Downs to build a temporary casino at the track if it was granted a slots license in 2008, reports the Boston Globe:

“I’m not interested in temporary licenses,” said Patrick. “I’m not interested in a piecemeal approach. We put out a comprehensive plan, because we think a comprehensive plan with those terms and conditions is what will and can work in and for Massachusetts and that’s what we intend to stick to.”
Menino, who has been advocating for a casino at the East Boston horseracing track, said he was blindsided by a Sunday Globe story that said if granted a casino license by the state in 2008, Suffolk Downs’ owners could be ready to go with a 180,000 square foot temporary facility, equipped with slot machines and gaming tables, as early as July, four years earlier than the governor’s plan envisions. The temporary casino would remain in place during development of a full-scale entertainment complex.”If this is going to be successful,” said Menino, “it has to be a destination resort.”

Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle said the plan was merely one piece of a proposal submitted to the governor’s office and that the track has no plans to move ahead without the support of state officials. Governor Patrick offered a plan last week to auction three casino licenses in the state; Suffolk is expected to be among the bidders.
9/30 Addendum: Dan Kennedy has an excellent post up on the results of the recent Boston Globe poll on casino gambling. Basically, Massachusetts residents say yes to gambling, no to casinos anywhere near them.

DiMasi Cashes In?

The Boston Globe picks up today on the story, reported by the Boston Herald yesterday, that Massachusetts House speaker Sal DiMasi has accepted nearly $4,000 in donations from gaming lobbyists and companies such as Harrah’s and GTech since 2002, including $500 from Harrah’s CEO Gary Loveman. Bay state slots supporters blame DiMasi for killing slots legislation just a couple of weeks ago with his statements about the “social cost” of gaming and apparent lack of concern for the state’s racing industry, and the Herald insinuates in a follow-up article that the contributions from Harrah’s and other out-of-state gaming companies, fearful of competition between Rhode Island casinos and Massachusetts slots, may have influenced the speaker. Such an argument though ignores a few inconvenient facts, like that Harrah’s would love to build a casino in the state — the company has been angling for years to do something with Suffolk Downs. Rather than a case of DiMasi and other anti-slots lawmakers cashing in, this may well be one of “politics as usual,” a non-story of lobbyists covering all their bases and politicians accepting all contributions without question. I’m sure a study would reveal similar gaming company contributions to influential pro-slots legislators. If the slots vote had gone the other way, would the Herald now be running articles suggesting that Senator president Robert Travaglini had sold out for $500 from a casino operator?

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