The Senate’s big whiff

The process of passing legislation on Beacon Hill is a lot like a game of ping pong. The House passes a bill and sends it over to the Senate. The Senate tweaks the legislation and sends it back to the House. The back and forth goes on until final language is agreed upon. Then the two chambers bat the bill back and forth some more, preparing it for final passage.

The process broke down at the end of the legislative session with a bill to continue the status quo in horse racing for another year. The bill wasn’t an attempt to fix a long-ignored industry that is badly in need of an overhaul. It was strictly a housekeeping matter. It could have been handled at any time over the last several months.

The House passed the measure on July 25. The Senate didn’t take the bill up until Tuesday, the last day of the session, when it passed the legislation and batted it back to the House. The House added an emergency preamble to the law so it would take effect immediately after the governor signed it into law, and batted it back to the Senate.

At that point, however, the Senate whiffed. In the midst of the late-night rush to wrap up the legislative session, the horse-racing bill got lost in the shuffle. The time clock on the legislative session ran out, and with it the laws that allow live horse-racing in Massachusetts and simulcasting of horse races from around the country.

The whiff had real and immediate consequences. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Wednesday notified Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Plainridge Race Course in Plainville that they had to suspend simulcasting and live racing. Plainridge canceled the harness races scheduled for Thursday. Suffolk Downs, which is hosting races this weekend, feared those events would have to be canceled.

One would think the Senate would rush to correct its mistake once it got back to work in an informal session on Thursday, but things didn’t move all that quickly. The Senate session started at 11 a.m., but an emergency preamble to the racing legislation wasn’t approved until 12:46 p.m. The House enacted the bill at 12:54 p.m. and the Senate followed suit four minutes later. The governor signed the bill around 1:30. That’s fast by Beacon Hill standards, but keep in mind this was a simple, noncontroversial bookkeeping measure. Some observers on Beacon Hill wondered if some message was being sent with the horse racing legislation.

After the vote, Senate President Karen Spilka didn’t apologize for the chamber’s oversight. Indeed, she suggested to Colin Young of the State House News Service that the racing legislation was similar to a lot of other bills that failed to pass Tuesday night. “Just like every single year, we don’t always get to everything,” she said.

Incredibly, Young reported that it seemed as if Spilka didn’t realize the failure to pass the bill by the end of the session had forced businesses in the state to scramble.

A Boston Globe editorial said the horse-racing mixup “helped make the point that the slow pace on Beacon Hill and habitual last-minute rush just before the end of the session have become a problem.” No disagreement here, but the incident should also be a reminder to lawmakers: When you screw up, acknowledge the mistake and fix it as fast as possible.



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