Fierce Campaign Expected On Massachusetts Casino Referendum

Jun 27, 2014

When the Massachusetts legislature voted three years ago to legalize casino gambling after decades of debate, it appeared the only fights left would be over where the casinos would be built. But now both sides on the charged issue are gearing up to win the hearts and minds of the state’s voters, who will decide in November if Las Vegas-style gambling will in fact have a home in Massachusetts.

Nathan Bech, who organized a campaign to defeat a proposed casino in West Springfield, will be one of several grassroots activists campaigning to repeal the state's casino law in November.
Credit WAMC

Casino companies, which typically fiercely compete with each other, are expected to unite in a campaign to fight repeal  of the state’s 2011 gaming law and preserve access to a multi-billion dollar market.

MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis confirms the companies looking to develop casinos in Massachusetts have had preliminary discussions about a coordinated campaign.

"  We are going to collaborate about the communication plan and being consistent in talking about the benefits that would come from our respective projects."

MGM was designated earlier this month for the lone resort casino license in western Massachusetts to build an $800 million project in downtown Springfield.  Mohegan Sun and Wynn Resorts are competing for a casino license in greater Boston. Penn National Gaming, which won the state’s lone slots parlor license earlier this year, has already started construction at a harness racetrack in Plainville.

All the projects are in jeopardy because the state’s highest court June 24th allowed a referendum initiative by anti-casino activists to go on the November ballot.

Mathis said he expects the pro-casino message will focus on the reasons the legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick approved the gaming law.

" Economic development, jobs, and repatriating revenue that has been exported across state lines,"according to Mathis.

The casino companies will have several allies in the fight.

" Business bureaus, laborers, vendors and all the stakeholders that have as much if not more at stake with our economic development project as MGM does," said Mathis

The trade unions that fought for decades to bring casinos to Massachusetts will try to convince voters not to throw away thousands of good-paying jobs, according to Jason Garand, business manager of Carpenters’ Union Local 108 in Springfield.

" It will be test to see how strong this is. I think at the day we will be building a casino here ( Springfield) as  they are building a slots parlor in Plainridge and waiting for a decision in Boston."

Casino opponents will try to organize grassroots activists in communities scattered across the state into a campaign network.   Nathan Bech led the effort last year to defeat plans by Hard Rock International for a casino in West Springfield.

" This whole casino idea was a bad one from the beginning. I am glad we don't have one in West Springfield and now I want to keep it out of Springfield as well."

   Steve Abdow, a leader of the “Repeal the Casino Deal” campaign, said they won’t be able to match the casino industry dollar-for-dollar when it comes to campaign advertising, but he’s confident they’ll raise enough money to be competitive.

" This is historic. There  has not been such a citizen-led effort to repeal state legislation on casinos. I think there  are bigger interests that want the same outcome we do."

Polls have shown support for casinos in Massachusetts has slipped recently to where voters are about evenly divided on the issue. But Springfield-based political consultant Tony Cignoli does not think those polls have much bearing on the outcome in November.

" It was generic question ' are you in favor of gaming?'  Now we know where the sites are and who the developers are.  People will vote based  on the track record of MGM  or what they like or don't like about a Steve Wynn.  It changes greatly."

Cignoli and other political observers predict tens of millions of dollars will be spent on the casino referendum campaign.  Some believe it will exceed what is spent on the race for governor.