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Deval Patrick's Racino Problem

Why Massachusetts pols are addicted to gambling.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It is this distinction between working-class and upper-class gambling that most Massachusetts pundits seized on when they sought to explain the ostensible breach between Patrick and DeLeo. The split in Massachusetts politics is one not of party, but of class. While Democrats still hold a 144-16 advantage in the state house and send a liberal delegation to Washington, they have lost their hold on the public. They still outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in the state, but a majority—a majority—of voters are independents. Patrick’s coalition is usually described as made up of liberals and labor. Liberals are, among other things, the Harvard sociologists, pro bono lawyers, and bearded guitarists of popular caricature. 

But labor is something different than it is elsewhere. It is not only a collection of government employees, or the subset of liberals who don’t ride in limousines. There are also still credible (or sort of credible) representatives of the industrial working class. They hold a kind of job that has been kept on life support by the Big Dig, the largest highway project in the history of the country, at least if you measure it in dollars. Ted Kennedy won the Big Dig for metropolitan Boston in the late 1980s, and the money is only now running out. The leaders of the AFL-CIO and the Building Trades are clamoring for the jobs spigot to be turned back on. They are the loudest supporters of racinos, because DeLeo has convinced them that racinos are all the spigot they’re going to get.

There are two things about this explanation, though, that make no sense. The first is that the spigot is on, isn’t it? What about the stimulus? True, many Massachusetts politicians complain that a shockingly disproportionate amount of the stimulus has been gobbled up by two nunchuck-shaped, gerrymandered congressional districts—the 3rd, which links Worcester to Fall River and is represented in Congress by Jim McGovern, who sits on the Budget Committee; and the 4th, Barney Frank’s district, which connects liberal Brookline and Newton with working class New Bedford. Still, Massachusetts has received at least $5 billion out of the president’s stimulus, which ought to be more than the racinos will produce. 

The second thing that needs explaining is this: If Patrick’s challenge lies in balancing liberal and labor interests, then surely it is the latter that he has to shore up. Charlie Baker, his Republican challenger for governor in November, is running only 6 points behind him, considerably closer than Scott Brown was a month before he demolished Martha Coakley in the special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat last January. “Had enough?” is Baker’s motto. It seems aimed at wooing the working class voters who followed behind Brown’s pickup truck last winter, not at breaking Patrick’s hold on the coffeehouses of Cambridge. 

The best explanation for why gambling failed despite all the votes in favor of it, is that the Democrats in the state house needed gambling to fail and they needed to vote in favor of it. 

They needed to be on-record as supporting mega-casinos because Patrick has turned the gambling industry into a lifeline of campaign funding for his allies. Slot machine companies, scratch card companies, racetrack developers, and others are among the biggest contributors to Massachusetts politicians. The companies contribute themselves, they hire lobbyists who contribute, and their employees contribute as individuals. In April the Boston Globe reported that the New Jersey-based consulting firm that the state paid to come up with the financial estimates for gambling also was being paid by DeLeo’s campaign. 

At the same time, Patrick, DeLeo, and their allies need gambling to fail because gambling is terrible public policy. Promises of huge revenue streams always accompany its introduction, but these are easily enough debunked in theory, and other states have failed to realize them in practice. A magnificent piece of economic digging was done by the Bentley University economist John Edward in the Lowell Sun, the paper that has done the hardest-hitting analysis of the gambling controversy. Lowell, maybe because it is only three miles from the New Hampshire border, has a keener eye on the larger New England economy. Edward noted that when New Hampshire did a cost-benefit analysis of opening one casino near Massachusetts, they estimated it would create $110 million, and possibly as much as $220 million, in negative social externalities. As drafted, the Massachusetts bill, which would create five mega-casinos not near but in the state, budgeted $28 million to cover the same negative effects.

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