Gambling Bill Conference Committee Closed to Public

By Kyle Cheney

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 1, 2011…The House member leading negotiations on expanded gambling legislation indicated Tuesday that he’s inclined to oppose an attempt by senators to block lawmakers from working in the casino industry for a year after they leave office.

“It’s my sense that this matter is so important that we should not preclude the best and the brightest from being eligible even if those people would be in government presently,” said Rep. Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee) told reporters at the State House.

“I don’t think we should say we want to bring an industry online that doesn’t exist, make it the best it can be – particularly compared with other states who are doing the same thing – and then tie one or both hands behind our backs by limiting ourselves. That’s my personal view going in. How it plays out remains to be seen.”

Wagner’s comments came minutes after six conference committee members negotiating a consensus gambling bill voted unanimously to close their meetings to the public, in keeping with the Legislature’s recent tradition to hold private discussions on the final contours of major legislation. Members of conference committees often settle some of the most contentious public policy issues facing the state.

The motion to close the meeting was made by House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) and seconded by Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster). The committee, which met 40 minutes late because its co-chair, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), was debating a redistricting bill, recessed immediately to return to House and Senate sessions. They plan to resume talks after the sessions.

Members of the conference committee include Rosenberg, Wagner, Dempsey, Flanagan, Rep. Paul Frost (R-Auburn), and Sen. Richard Ross (R-Wrentham).

Committee members say they’re “hopeful” about completing negotiations prior to a seven-week recess that begins Nov. 16, and they have repeatedly contended that differences between the House and Senate versions of expanded gambling legislation aren’t too wide to overcome relatively quickly.

“I think the proof going to that point is that the bill initially debated by the House and the Senate, each of those bills were remarkably similar,” Wagner said. “It’s my sense that we can get to it.”

Asked whether it would take one or two meetings to complete negotiations, Wagner added, “I’m an optimist. I’d like to think that. If I said one or two, it might be nine or 10. If I said nine or 10, it might be one or two.”

Both bills would sanction three casinos spread by region as well as a slot parlor cup for competitive bids. The bills also create a five-member Gaming Commission to oversee the new industry. Casinos would be taxed at 25 percent of daily revenue, while the slots-only facility would turn over 49 percent of its daily revenue.

If the conference committee arrives at an agreement, it would mark the second time in two years that lawmakers produced a consensus gambling bill. Last year, a similar bill that sanctioned three casinos and two slot parlors designated for state racetracks landed on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk. But the bill died when Patrick returned it with an amendment after lawmakers had completed formal business for the year.

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  • At the local level you need a damn good reason (defined in statute) to go into exec session. These guys just decided to go into exec session without stating any reason. That’s pretty pathetic.  

  • Mr. Cheney – can you please include in your report the last time a conference committee session was OPEN to the public?

    I worked in the Legislature over six years and cannot recall a single one.  There are MANY conference committees to reconcile House and Senate versions of bills.  In fact, there’s one every year to reconcile the state budget.  And none of them are open to the public either.

    I am NO FAN of the casino bill, but this story infers something sinister that just isn’t there.

  • edfactor

    First, let me say I think transparency is a good thing and should be implemented most of the time.

    That being said, I really don’t think everything should be open to the public. It’s hard to get certain kinds of things done when everyone is “on the record.”

    If you disagree, have you ever served on a decision-making group that had to do things in public? Talk to anyone who has. They will admit that there should be some way people can talk plainly about their concerns without being attacked for saying the wrong thing by accident in a heated conversation.

    If you make them do everything in an open session, the real negotiation will move to cloak rooms, hallways, bars, and people’s homes. That’s not my opinion, that’s the reality I have seen at all levels of government.

    I think there are compromises to be had here. You can meet behind closed doors, but a civil servant will attend and create a reasonable summary – approved by the members – that will be released. It will be tricky to get the balance right, and you will have to adopt rules about who gets identified as saying what. I have seen it work.

    If you don’t do this, then nothing will be said at these meetings (except posturing) and you will move the real conversations to completely private spaces. That’s worse than what we have now.