The state Senate gave itself a black eye on Tuesday, demonstrating not just an obliviousness to ethical concerns but an aversion to open, transparent debate as well.
It came when Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, offered a perfectly reasonable amendment to forbid lawmakers from working for casinos for five years after leaving office. Gambling interests have flooded Beacon Hill with lobbyists and money, and the public deserves reassurance that the possibility of future employment will not influence how lawmakers vote now.
Yet the very notion that public appearance needed to be addressed infuriated some of Eldridge’s colleagues.
Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer took “very serious umbrage” at the implication that lawmakers weren’t people of intelligence and compassion. In a unique bit of logic, Senator Stanley Rosenberg, the point person on the gambling bill, said that passing such a no-revolving-door amendment would actually contribute to public cynicism about lawmakers by creating the impression that such a restriction was necessary to protect the public trust and ensure integrity. Why, it was tantamount to rewriting state ethics laws, fumed Senator Gale Candaras, Democrat of Wilbraham — and those laws were the strictest in the nation.
That’s debatable, and anyway state laws, at least in this area, aren’t strict enough. An ethical cloud hangs over Beacon Hill. After all, former Senator Dianne Wilkerson is currently serving a stint for corruption in federal prison, while former House Speaker Sal DiMasi will soon start his own prison term. And that’s to say nothing of the various ongoing probes of state government.
It’s telling that the Senate refused to talk through Eldridge’s amendment in an open forum. Instead, Senate President Therese Murray quickly called a recess and ushered her Democratic charges into the privacy of her office, where the exchanges are said to have been heated. After Democrats reworked the measure behind closed doors, senators returned to the chamber and quickly passed the revised amendment, with no public explanation and no further debate on it. The new amendment slices the waiting period to one year.
The entire sorry episode shows precisely why the restriction that Eldridge proposed is sorely needed. And though what the Senate adopted is better than the House bill, which contains no waiting period, a one-year interval is so short as to be almost meaningless.
The debate isn’t finished yet, which means the legislation could be strengthened. Governor Patrick’s office has made vague noises in support of unspecified ethics measures. But there is a clear danger of a revolving door between Beacon Hill and the Massachusetts gambling industry that lawmakers are now poised to create. Patrick should take a tougher stand.