Scott Harshbarger for casino czar

It’s amazing that so much of the negotiation of a casino-and-slots bill has gone on behind closed doors. After proposals had sucked much of the oxygen out of the air last year, Governor Patrick and legislative leadership, especially House Speaker Robert DeLeo, collaborated secretly to reach agreement before a bill reached the legislative floor.

During the whole debate, there was precious little protest other than from former MA Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. In the House, a good fight was put up by a handful that included Newton Representative Ruth Balser. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering had all the stench of former Speaker Sal DiMasi’s efforts to steer a technology contract to Cognos, which deal is on track to land DiMasi in jail.

As the Globe’s Dante Ramos pointed out on Sunday  , Harshbarger has a long list of “good government” causes, from campaign finance to probation department reform. He is a purist when it comes to government process, and this process has been anything but pure.

In any number of passionate emails and reports, Harshbarger has warned against the serious adverse impacts that this industry will impose upon our Commonwealth: increased crime, corruption, addiction, and the cannibalization of local businesses. The casino industry, for its part, has spent a fortune on lobbyists to make sure that Massachusetts goes along with three resort casinos and one slots parlor.

According to Tom Grillo of the Boston Herald , a group that includes the League of Women Voters, the Council of Churches, and the National Association of Social Workers is exploring ways to sue to stop casino gambling in Massachusetts. But the horse seems to have left the barn.

It will take a significant regulatory bureaucracy to control and oversee what Harshbarger calls “this predatory industry.” We haven’t heard what the costs of that would be. The idea that it might be seeded by millions from the state’s rainy day fund is really perplexing. Nor has there been an airing of what kinds of revenues are likely to be generated by casinos, especially during a time of stubborn recession. I have yet to hear any thoughtful analysis from other would-be Commonwealth watchdogs, like the Auditor, Treasurer, Inspector General or legislative post-audit leaders.

If the bill goes through, and I wouldn’t bet against it, there will be a gambling commission to set regulations for the industry and monitor compliance with those regulations, but the parameters within which they can move are already circumscribed by the legislation. What’s to stop legislators from supporting this bill in exchange for employment when they retire?

Here’s a modest proposal: put Scott Harshbarger at the helm of that commission. He is about the only person I can think of who has the information, integrity and experience to represent the interests of the public when it comes to gambling.

Basically, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether enough jobs will materialize and revenues will roll in from the gambling industry. A good watchdog should be able to monitor whether the dice are loaded against us, and perhaps even mitigate potential damages.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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