On May 5, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will take up the question of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s rejection of a ballot referendum to repeal the Massachusetts casino law. She concluded in December, 2011 that the referendum should be a no-go. The repeal, it seems, would break the implied contract between the gaming (the industry’s preferred synonym for gambling) commission and the casino operators.
Another term that gets bandied about is that repealing the law would be a “taking,” depriving casino operators of value to which they are entitled. But paying a $400,000 fee to compete for a license to operate doesn’t really seem to be a contract; it’s pay to play, with everyone knowing in advance the final outcome is uncertain. Casino operators of all people should know this.
Such a repeal has happened before. In 2010 Massachusetts voters ended dog racing by referendum, and those businesses had long been in business. Should we really be protecting casino operators who are in the very business of exploiting people who take risks? Some observers (including Boston Globe business columnist Shirley Leung)argue that Coakley’s is the right decision, that repealing the law would hurt business by creating a more uncertain business environment. But that seems a stretch.
The Boston Herald on Thursday reported on Coakley’s ties to Northwind Strategies, her campaign strategist Doug Rubin’s shop. Northwind works for Mohegan Sun, competing to build a casino at Suffolk Downs in Revere. And she’s not the only candidate with explaining to do on the casino repeal referendum.
Last week, The Boston Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan wrote about AG candidate Warren Tolman’s role as business development director of a company called Fast Strike Games, which is building online interactive games offering large prizes. The legislature would have to authorize online sports betting to optimize the potential payoff, but such a move may not be too far off. I wrote favorably about Tolman’s candidacy a month ago, but I noted his hesitancy to take a position on the casino referendum.
The point is: all the action on casinos so far has been by politicians, certain business and labor organizations. Except in the proposed host communities, the regular folks – you and I – have never had a chance to weigh in. A WBUR poll in March found 46 percent favored casinos and 43 percent were opposed. An earlier poll had show 53 percent support with 39 percent opposed. So public opinion seems to be shifting, especially as the economy has improved and people seem less desperate for something, anything, to put them back to work.
As the SJC on May 5 takes up the issue of the repeal referendum, it’s clear that we the people need an opportunity to vote yea or nay to casinos in Massachusetts.
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