After Casino Ruling, All Sides Vow To Get The Campaign Going

The much-awaited Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision concerning casinos came down Tuesday morning. The court ruled unanimously to allow a question on the November ballot, asking voters if they want to repeal the state’s casino law.

That reversed a ruling last fall made by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is also a candidate for governor.

Political fallout

Coakley, during a press conference at her office, fought to contain the fallout from the Supreme Judicial Court decision.

“I’m pleased that the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled on this issue of great interest to voters in Massachusetts,” Coakley told reporters. “I am pleased they have made a decision that lets this to go to the ballot.”

Coakley’s office had refused to certify the ballot question, calling it an unconstitutional “taking” of contract rights from casino applicants. But the court unanimously disagreed, ruling the casinos should have been aware the law could change.

At the press conference, Coakley repeated her carefully worded position on casinos. She said they would not have been her first choice for economic development, but now that they’re almost here, she said, “I would vote against the repeal at this stage.”

The Republican favorite, Charlie Baker, said in a statement he supports the court’s decision. But while he has misgivings about the casino law, he plans to vote against the repeal.

Springfield reaction

In Springfield, Mayor Domenic Sarno said he is not surprised by the court’s ruling. Sarno said his administration is ready to convince voters statewide about his city’s proposed casino.

“We’ve been able to get over every hurdle,” Sarno told reporters. “This is another hurdle and we try to attack these things being prepared and being optimistic. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

The court’s ruling comes just ten days after the gaming commission voted to award MGM Resorts a license to open a Springfield casino.

Casino operators undeterred

If the referendum passes, Springfield’s casino hopes are finished. And even if voters leave the law intact, Sarno acknowledged the campaign delays construction of MGM’s proposed casino in the city, as MGM does not plan to start construction until after the November election.

In a statement, MGM said it will educate voters about the economic benefits that would be lost if the law is repealed.

“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,” said Michael Mathis, president of MGM Springfield.

One gaming site – a slots parlor in Plainville – is already under construction. Eric Schippers with its developer, Penn National Gaming, said crews will continue working on the facility, which is projected to open in about a year:

“We’re not talking about theoretical jobs. We’re talking about real jobs, real people,” Schippers said. “And we’re hoping to protect those jobs come November.

Opponents gear up

Meanwhile, casino opponents in Massachusetts are planning their next move.

“Now we go into the fall and we do hope the people do take this chance to vote, to vote against a flawed economic policy, to vote against casinos, to vote for something better for Massachusetts,” said former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

Casino opponents have already hired a campaign manager and a political fundraiser.

Steve Abdow is a leader of the group Repeal the Casino Deal. Abdow said it’s a given that his side will be outspent.

“This industry represents money,” Abdow said. “And the truth is they don’t really have a lot more to say about why we should have casinos in Massachusetts. Everyone has heard it: jobs and tax relief. We think that the jobs thing is twisted and overstated, and so is the tax relief part.”

Regulators keep working

The Massachusetts Legislature approved a law permitting three casinos and a slots parlor in 2011.

The Massachusetts gaming commission, which is in the process of awarding those licenses, released a statement saying it would continue with the current process despite the “atmosphere of uncertainty.”

New England Public Radio’s Sarah Birnbaum, Kari Njiiri, Susan Kaplan and Sam Hudzik contributed to this report, along with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz.