The Associated Press September 28, 2011, 9:03AM ET

Mass. Senate continues contentious casino debate

The debate over casino gambling in the Massachusetts Senate quickly turned personal Tuesday with senators accusing each other of pandering to the public's skepticism of Beacon Hill politics.

The point of contention was a proposed amendment brought by casino opponents that would have forced lawmakers to wait five years after they leave office before getting a job with a casino or gambling establishment. The Senate ultimately passed a revised amendment calling for a one-year ban on lawmakers working in the gambling industry after leaving office.

Sen. James Eldridge, the original amendment's main sponsor, said it was important to make it absolutely clear that lawmakers voting to license casinos in Massachusetts were working in the best interest of the state, not their own pockets.

"It should not be an economic development bill for lawmakers," said Eldridge, D-Acton, adding that "we need to keep some space between lawmakers" and casinos.

Eldridge's comments outraged casino supporters in the Senate who accused him of stoking the public's perception of corruption at the Statehouse.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a casino supporter, said that to suggest that the only way for the Senate to maintain the public's trust is to block former senators from finding work fuels the perception that there's already a lack of integrity in the chamber.

"We are contributing to the cynicism," said Rosenberg, D-Amherst.

Sen. Gale Candaras, D-Wilbraham, was blunter, accusing Eldridge of launching "an attack on his colleagues."

At that point, Senate President Therese Murray announced a break in the public debate so Democratic senators could have a closed door caucus to hash out the issue in private.

When senators returned about an hour later, Murray quickly called for a roll call vote on an updated version of the amendment without explaining the changes publicly.

In the end the Senate approved the new amendment -- which creates a one-year "cooling-off period" instead of a five-year ban -- on a 36-1 vote. Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, was the sole vote against the amendment.

Murray defended the closed-door caucus.

"I asked the members to come into the caucus so they could have an instructional, informative debate on both sides on what the concerns were from some of the members," said Murray, D-Plymouth. "The same things that were said in here were said out there."

After the debate, Eldridge said he proposed the cooling-off period to help garner the public's trust.

"I think it's absolutely important ... to make sure we don't have legislators that, as soon as this bill becomes law, are going off into the casino industry," he said.

Tuesday's debate came against a backdrop of recent public scandals on Beacon Hill.

Last year, former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat, pleaded guilty to bribery charges. In June, former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, also a Boston Democrat, was convicted on June 15 of federal conspiracy, extortion and honest services fraud charges.

It's also not uncommon for former lawmakers to become lobbyists for the industries they used to help regulate.

The Senate rejected a series of amendments on Tuesday, including a proposal that would have allowed slot machines at Logan International Airport.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, argued the measure would have allowed the state to boost gambling revenues by targeting tourists and other visitors to the state.

Critics said it would dilute the concentration of slot machines at the three casinos and one slots parlor to be created by the bill.

The Senate also rejected another amendment Tuesday that would have barred casinos from using cashless wagering systems.

Backers of the amendment said the measure would have helped discourage compulsive gambling, but opponents said there were other safeguards already in the bill.

The Senate isn't scheduled to resume the casino debate until next Tuesday.

The Massachusetts House overwhelmingly approved its version of the casino bill earlier this month.

Both bills would license three resort style casinos and one slots parlor.


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