Casinos expected to dominate the debate and discussion on Beacon Hill
The debate over casinos will dominate Beacon Hill this fall and well into the spring, like no other issue since the bitter fight over gay marriage in the last few years.
Meanwhile, the rest of Gov. Deval Patrick’s ambitious agenda and campaign promises may get squeezed out in the process.
That’s the expectation as state lawmakers return to the State House to resume what many consider a so-far lackluster two-year legislative session.
“This is going to take a little while,” House Speaker Sal DiMasi said last week of Patrick’s plan to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to Massachusetts. “More than likely, I don’t think anything will happen this session. So I think the debate will continue this year and into next year.”
Most things take a little while, or longer, on Beacon Hill. Legislative leaders like to say they spend the first year of any two-year session on public hearings and studying issues, and that most of the action happens in the second year.
But critics say Massachusetts legislators, who collect $58,237-a-year in base pay, put part-time effort into what are supposed to be full-time jobs. Unlike some other states, Massachusetts doesn’t limit its legislative sessions - so work tends to be spread out over the course of the two-year session.
The 2007-2008 session has less than a year to go, thanks to the legislative rule that suspends formal sessions at the end of July in the second year of the session. Ten months remain before July 31, when lawmakers put down their work on Beacon Hill and head home to focus on their election campaigns.
Then again, lawmakers, like many students, show a preference for doing things at the last minute. On Thursday, the House advanced legislation needed to ensure the distribution of $9.5 million to hospitals in time for the Oct. 1 start of their fiscal year on Monday.
Legislative priorities such as property tax reform and alternative energy initiatives have yet to reach the House or Senate floors for debate. Priorities set by Patrick, such as closing business tax loopholes, removing a tax exemption on telecommunications company equipment and a local options meals tax, have yet to materialize.
A sweeping social agenda laid out during Patrick’s campaign has yet to be taken up by lawmakers. That includes welfare reform, expanded early childhood programs, and renewable energy projects such as Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. Economic development proposals such as a $1 billion life sciences initiative have yet to be approved.
Lawmakers did pass film industry tax credits, identity theft protections, and legislation allowing local governments to buy health insurance through the state. They also put the contentious gay marriage issue to rest by killing a proposed ballot question on same-sex nuptials.
Patrick and legislative leaders, meanwhile, remain at odds over many of the issues the Legislature has yet to grapple with. House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray either oppose or are balking at Patrick's efforts to raise taxes - such as the local option meals tax, and business taxes.
“The Senate is committed to creating jobs, adding affordable housing and reforming transportation before going to the public and asking them to contribute out of their pocket,” Murray said last week.
DiMasi, meanwhile, opposes Patrick's plan to allow casinos in the state. But others worry casinos are a foregone conclusion.
“I think there’s going to be a debate over which casino option brings in the most money, as opposed to which option if any makes the most sense for the economy,” said Peter Forman, president of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce.
Tom Benner of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.