With Happy Hour Amendment, Senator Hedlund Played His Cards Well

Friday, October 28, 2011

If there were a "Champion of an Uncomfortable Truth" award in Massachusetts politics, State Senator Bob Hedlund would win it this year.

A Republican from Weymouth, Hedlund wants to amend the casino bill to make it legal for bars and restaurants in Massachusetts to offer patrons free or discounted drinks if casinos are allowed to do the same.

When he proposed it earlier this month during Senate debate on the bill, it looked like kind of a strange move for someone of Hedlund's philosophical bent. He was a lead sponsor in 2005, after all, of "Melanie's Law," which significantly increased the penalties for drunk driving.

And just this week, Hedlund was a featured speaker at a State House event in support of a bill that would require anyone convicted of drunk driving, even first offenders, to have a lock on his car's ignition preventing the vehicle from starting if alcohol were detected on the driver's breath.

Some skeptics immediately speculated that Hedlund was pushing a "Happy Hour Amendment" because he co-owns a Braintree restaurant called Four Square and wants to attract more elbow-benders to his business.

Not at all, Hedlund calmly responded, Four Square has no desire or plan to offer happy hours, which were banned in Massachusetts in 1984 following a series of ghastly drunk driving-related fatalities, and would not do so if they were re-legalized.

His only motive for bringing the issue forward, he explained, was to level the field on which casinos will be newly competing with restaurants and bars for the limited recreational and entertainment dollars of Massachusetts residents. If casinos will be able to feed free drinks to gamblers, as they clearly want to do, restaurants and bars should be able to do the same, he reasoned.

In a legislature where members have an unwritten policy of referring to casino legislation as the "gaming bill" -- never the gambling bill -- most folks were not happy to be discussing how gaming establishments will be loosening up their customers with free booze, even though it's been that way so long at casinos that people seldom comment on the practice.

Hedlund opposes the casino bill, so I think it's fair to surmise he's trying to turn the tradition of free casino drinks, judo style, into a weapon against the bill. For that, I give him a warm round of applause. Because not only is Hedlund smart on the politics, he's also right on the principle:

The Commonwealth should not make it easy for casinos to get their customers stupid any more than it should make it easy for someone to get loaded at a bar before driving home. Unless, of course, casinos want to provide free rides home to every gambler.

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