A state Senate proposal to impose a five-year ban on former lawmakers taking casino jobs triggered an uproar yesterday by Democratic senators who abruptly broke off a heated public debate to rewrite the measure in secret.
An hour later, and with no further discussion, the Senate approved a watered-down, one-year restriction.
Lawmakers’ rationale for weakening the bill may be hard to explain outside the marble corridors of the State House: They said that a strong prohibition would only feed the public’s perception that lawmakers cannot be trusted.
“We’re creating a presumption that the people in this body cannot operate with integrity,’’ complained Senator Gale Candaras, Democrat from Wilbraham. “It’s bad law. It’s bad precedent.’’
But the Legislature has not been without its high-profile problems. The past three House speakers have been indicted; the most recent, Salvatore F. DiMasi, was sentenced this month to eight years in federal prison for political corruption.
The five-year ban was proposed by James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, who argued in the public portion of the debate yesterday that the bill authorizing three casinos and one slot parlor should only be an economic development program for the state, “It should not be an economic bill for legislators.’’ He said a five-year ban would address any perception or public cynicism that legislators might be motivated by personal interest to support the casino bill.
Members of Senate leadership were already working the floor to urge a no vote on the amendment. But when they met unexpected pushback from legislators, they tried a different course, signaling that they would go along with the ban, even though they didn’t agree with it.
“We will support this amendment,’’ said Senator Stephen Brewer, a Barre Democrat and Ways and Means Committee chair, in angry remarks from the floor, “but I reject and resent its implications.’’ He said “98 percent’’ of all the people he has served with in the Senate have been hard workers who served honorably.
But as the debate continued to simmer and tempers flared, Senate President Therese Murray inexplicably slammed on the brakes and called for a recess, so Democrats could hash out their differences outside of public view.
When the closed caucus emerged, the five-year ban had been shaved to one year, though the change was not publicly announced before the vote. The Senate quickly passed the amendment 36 to 1. Debate on the entire casino bill continues next week.
“Most people don’t pay attention or understand the political process,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political scientist who watched the debate yesterday. “But what people will understand is when a major political party goes into closed caucus and makes it easier for themselves to get jobs when they leave.’’
Legislators have tremendous power to influence private industry, Ubertaccio said, and the potential exists for them to profit personally from the decisions they make.
“People are going to perceive them as more corrupt because they have only put one year between themselves and jobs with the casino industry,’’ he said.
Senate Republicans, shut out of the private debate among Democrats, delighted in the inter-party dispute on the other side of the aisle.
“Nice to see a little passion here once in a while rather than a bunch of sheep,’’ said Senator Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, in comments to reporters. He said he favored the more severe five-year ban. “I sat next to Wilkerson for a while. I sat next to Marzilli.’’
He was referring to Dianne Wilkerson and James Marzilli who, along with Anthony Galluccio, left the Senate in disgrace amid a flurry of legal problems.
Republicans are outnumbered 36 to 4 in the Massachusetts Senate.
Brewer told reporters that a one-year ban is “the industry standard.’’ Five years, he said, was “an arbitrary number.’’ A casino bill passed by the House does not contain similar language; a conference committee would eventually have to reconcile the two bills.
After the vote, Murray defended her decision to usher her members into closed session to work out their differences. She said the same arguments the public heard on the floor were the arguments repeated in the private discussion.
Then why, she was asked, shouldn’t the public see that debate?
“I think they had a very hearty debate on the floor,’’ she said.
Following the vote, casino opponents were mum on what happened in the caucus. Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and casino critic, said that she and several other senators made themselves available for interviews to account for their votes. “I think it’s a stretch to say this was done in secret,’’ she said.
Eldridge, the senator who started the whole debate, called the one-year ban progress.
He declined to say how his colleagues persuaded him to give up on the tougher language. “That’s part of the caucus process that is private,’’ he said.