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Casino question to go the voters – again

Date: 6/25/2014

SPRINGFIELD – Mayor Domenic Sarno said he is “optimistic” that voters across the Commonwealth will keep the legislation in place allowing casinos to be built in the state.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced on June 24 the contested referendum question that could repeal the legislation legalizing expanded gaming would be on the November ballot.

“We are prepared for that,” he said. Sarno declared that he and other casino advocates “will educate the public [across the state] as we did in Springfield.”

The lesson Sarno wants the voters to learn is that casinos will bring needed jobs and revenues to the state. Sarno said the plan and funding for the campaign has yet to be determined, although he explained that no city funds would be used.

The court’s decision read in part: “The issue presented on appeal is whether an initiative petition meant to prohibit casino and slots gambling and abolish pari-mutuel wagering on simulcast greyhound races meets the requirements set forth in art. 48 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution and, therefore, may be considered by voters at the November Statewide election. The Attorney General [Martha Coakley] concluded that it did not and, accordingly, declined to certify it for inclusion on the ballot.

“The plaintiffs, 10 Massachusetts voters who submitted the proposed initiative for certification, filed a complaint challenging the Attorney General’s decision and sought an order requiring the Attorney General to certify the petition. We conclude that the Attorney General erred in declining to certify, and grant the requested relief so that the initiative may be decided by the voters at the November election.”

Coakley issued the following statement on the decision, “I am pleased that the SJC has ruled on this matter, and it is now an issue that will be decided by the voters in the fall. My office had conducted a legal review of this ballot question, but knew it would ultimately be decided by the court. My office worked cooperatively with both parties to put this issue before the Court. Now, with today’s decision, voters will have the final say.”

Michael Mathis, MGM Springfield president, said, “MGM Resorts has spent three years collaborating and talking with the people of western Massachusetts on the value of a casino resort as a unique economic development catalyst. We are confident that our urban revitalization project in Springfield, one of the Commonwealth’s most prominent Gateway Cities, is something to which all Massachusetts voters can relate. It is a comeback story in progress with hard-working people eager to grow jobs and get back to work. We are fully prepared to extend this message to a larger audience through a statewide campaign to educate the voters on the enormous economic benefits that would be lost to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth in a repeal.”

Springfield’s Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy said the city will “simply keep going forward to what we’re doing.” He mentioned the MGM Springfield casino is only part of the $2.8 billion in economic development projects in the city.

Sarno said the city’s new budget has been “protected” from the possibility of the casino law’s repeal and he noted that MGM Springfield recently paid the city $1 million for the former Howard Street Armory building as well as the former Zanetti school. The casino company will close on those two parcels July 31.

The statement from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission also reflected a full steam ahead approach. The statement read: “The Massachusetts Gaming Commission respects the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court to allow the citizens of the Commonwealth to vote on the repeal of expanded gaming in November. As the Commission has demonstrated in the past, we have the flexibility to achieve progress in the licensing and regulatory process even in an atmosphere of uncertainty and we will continue to do so. Although the Commission has not taken a position on the repeal; we are committed to implementing the law as it currently exists in a manner that is participatory, transparent and fair.”

Springfield-based political consultant Anthony Cignoli, who was involved in one of the casino efforts locally, released the following analysis to Reminder Publications: “The decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today to allow for a referendum to repeal the Massachusetts  casino gaming law to appear on this November’s ballot has an enormous impact on the state’s politics. The campaigns for governor, treasurer and attorney general especially, will be affected with this question now being a debate topic.

“Local legislative races won’t be immune either from this topic that Gov. Deval Patrick once described as having the ability to ‘Suck all the air out of the room.’ Everyone running for anything will have to have an opinion, either for or against casinos or trying to walk the tight-wire in between.

“I can’t prognosticate the final vote, but I can predict that this will be an incredibly expensive campaign. Expect this to be a multi-million dollar battle.

“Having been on both sides of many referendum efforts, needing either a yes or no vote from the electorate, I know from hard experience that getting a yes is much more difficult than getting a no. The pro-casino side needs a yes vote.

“Referendums are always the toughest campaigns to win, for either side. Referendums are questions, not flesh-and-blood candidates. The campaigns don’t have the benefit of a candidate who can connect with the voter, who can use charisma and political skills directly in delivering the campaign’s message.

“A referendum like the Massachusetts Casino question that will now appear on the November ballot, has a special degree of difficulty for the proponents. When there is doubt, voters tend to vote no, not yes.

“The Massachusetts process has been rife with questions, confusion and chaos; from the strident comments of a proponent like Steve Wynn to the Gaming Commission chairman having to explain his relationship with one casino site real estate owner. Confused voters tend to have doubts.

“Another factor of difficulty for the proponents will be convincing the majority of the state’s 351 municipalities that a yes vote benefits them somehow. With only two of those communities being a casino host site, and very few that surround those cities having ‘Neighboring Casino Community Status’ (like Longmeadow and West Springfield do with Springfield where MGM plans to build), it will be hard to convince those communities that there is some benefit for them. It becomes the old ‘What is in it for me?’ challenge.

“The proponents can make an argument for economic need for new jobs and tax revenues. This argument can be made best in still economically hard-hit western Massachusetts, where voters believe (with great reasons) they are forgotten by Boston.

“In fact, the proponents might look to MGM Springfield to make the case to the state’s voters as successfully as they did with Springfield’s electorate in their successful referendum campaign last July. It may fall to MGM Springfield to be the locomotive that has to pull this freight train across the finish line. MGM’s campaign in Springfield to win mayoral process approval and a referendum in a city that had voted against casinos twice before, was textbook perfect,” he continued.