As Massachusetts moves closer to issuing the state’s first casino licenses a potential referendum battle is looming.
Anti-casino leaders are busy developing a campaign strategy to persuade Massachusetts voters to repeal the state’s 2011 gaming law that authorized casino gambling. Steve Abdow, a member of the leadership team of the Repeal the Casino Deal ballot initiative said the message will be pretty straightforward.
" It's really a matter of education. If people understand the negative impact and that the casinos won't deliver what is promised."
The organization collected more than the required 68,911 signatures of registered voters to advance the repeal referendum toward the November ballot, but the question was struck down by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who said it would violate the constitutional rights of the casino license applicants. The State Supreme Judicial Court will hear the issue and is expected to rule by July.
If the question winds up on the ballot, Abdow said the anti-casino campaign will stress fairness and economic equity, which are expected to be major themes of several campaigns in the 2014 election.
" The only ones who really benefit are the owners and it is a continued transfer of wealth from those who don't have it to those who do."
Abdow points out that voters in West Springfield, Palmer, East Boston, and Milford all rejected casino projects in their communities last year.
" Who would have thought all these local referendums would have been turned down and that gives us a lot of encouragement."
Hoping to avoid a potentially expensive referendum campaign, a coalition of gaming companies along with some Massachusetts voters who support the casino law have filed a motion to intervene in the case pending before the state’s highest court.
One of the companies fighting to keep the repeal question off the ballot is MGM Resorts. The company is proposing an $800 million casino in downtown Springfield and is the lone applicant for the one casino license authorized in western Massachusetts.
Pointing out that 58 percent of Springfield voters backed the project in a referendum last July, MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis said in a statement that the company had invested millions over the last two years along with staff time and energy to move the project forward, adding “it would be devastating to roll back all that has been accomplished and take away the promise of what is to come.”
Ted Steger, a member of No Casino Springfield, said the statewide referendum is the number one hope for people who don’t want to see MGM build a casino in Springfield.
" In the long term it is not a benefit to the state and harms the state and I think the thoughtful residents of Massachusetts will be persuaded to vote against ( casino gambling)"
A poll last November by Western New England University found that 61 percent of Massachusetts adults support casino gambling in the state, while just 33 percent oppose it. The university’s polling director Tim Vercellotti said the findings were similar to the results of polls taken in 2009 and 2010.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission expects to issue a license for a facility with just slot machines by February 28th. Licenses for full-scale resort casinos – one in western Massachusetts and one in greater Boston – will be issued by the end of May.
The winning bidders are required to pay large non-refundable fees -- $25 million for the slots license and $85 million for a resort casino license.