By Gintautas Dumcius and Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- The Supreme Judicial Court ruling paving the way for statewide debate over a November ballot question repealing the state's casino law is dramatically reshaping the Bay State's political landscape, as candidates for office will have to compete with the question for airtime and voter attention.

Secretary of State William Galvin, the state's elections chief, said he believes casino opponents have enough signatures to appear on the Nov. 4 ballot. Once all the ballot initiative petitioners file signatures with his office by July 2, Galvin said he will number the questions within the first week of July.

Galvin said the question repealing the 2011 casino law will likely boost voter turnout, which was already expected to be high with a gubernatorial election and contested races for constitutional offices.

"I will suggest to you I think this question will provide another reason to vote. So I'm guessing there's going to be a very intensive turnout," he said. "Everyone anticipates there'll be a lot of money spent. I think they're right."

The state's two licensees under the casino law - MGM Springfield and Penn National Gaming, which is building a racino in Plainville - expressed confidence that voters would preserve the law, but calls were quickly issued for state regulators to halt the process until voters have their say.


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Rep. Carlo Basile, an East Boston Democrat facing a challenge from one of the ballot question's petitioners, issued a statement calling on the gaming commission to delay awarding of any casino licenses until after the November election. "We need to have stability in our communities as we deal with these important decisions," said Basile, who voted for the 2011 law.

Mohegan Sun is pursuing an eastern Massachusetts casino license for the Suffolk Downs racetrack, which is located on the East Boston-Revere border. East Boston voters last November rejected a casino at Suffolk Downs, prompting a shift in plans that led to approval of a revised plan in Revere. Wynn Resorts is competing with the Mohegan Sun bid, hoping to win the license and build a resort casino in Everett.

A delay in licensing, along with a successful ballot question, could have an impact on the state budget.

The House and Senate fiscal year 2015 budgets include $53 million from licensing fees from at least two casinos if they are awarded the licenses, and $20 million in anticipated slot parlor money in the last quarter of the fiscal year, assuming an expected slot parlor opens in Plainville. MGM Springfield has been awarded the western Massachusetts casino license.

"The whole idea of being able to fund the budget into the future was one of the motivating factors of the Legislature adopting an expanded gaming bill in the Commonwealth," said Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat and a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who supports the casino law. "And there's been a lot of resources expended already, investments that have been made, and in the case of Springfield, you already have a decision made."

National lobbying firms are gearing up for a fight, with the American Gaming Association, an industry group based in Washington D.C., saying on Tuesday it will make sure voters have "facts" instead of "stereotypes" before making a decision on the repeal the casino ballot question.

"While it's up to Massachusetts to decide whether or not to welcome the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenues gaming will bring to the Commonwealth, the AGA will ensure that voters have the facts about our industry instead of tired stereotypes," the organization said in a statement, arguing that gambling provides thousands of jobs and revenue for education and public safety.

Opponents say casinos have a negative impact on small businesses and lead to an increase in crime and addiction.

Polls show a divided electorate, and elected officials and candidates seeking higher office, are similarly split in their views on whether to vote for or against keeping the 2011 casino law, which allows for up to three resort-style casinos. 

The chairman of the gaming commission, which was established under the 2011 law, said in a statement that it "respects" the SJC decision and "has not taken a position" on the question. "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," said Steve Crosby, the commission chair.

On his way to meet with Gov. Deval Patrick's new chief of staff Rick Sullivan for the first time, Crosby said he plans to stay out of the ballot question debate.

"We're not involved in the ballot initiative," Crosby told the News Service. Asked if he believes the issue should be decided by voters, Crosby said, "It's up to the Supreme Court. They say yes? Yes it is."

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office had initially rejected the certification of the ballot question, and one of her Democratic rivals for governor, Treasurer Steve Grossman, support preserving the casino law. Former Obama healthcare official Don Berwick, a Democrat, supports repeal efforts, a stance he has sought to emphasize during his gubernatorial campaign. Independent gubernatorial candidate Jeff McCormick also backs repeal efforts.

Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Charlie Baker supporting keeping the law, though he has said he prefers just one casino in the state.

In his statement, Baker added that he fully supports the high court's "rebuke" of Coakley's "poorly reasoned position and I am happy the voters will be able to make their voices heard." "It is hard to not to wonder if the Attorney General's position was shaped more by political considerations than legal merit," Baker said.

Baker added, "While the current law is not ideal from my perspective, repeal would be highly disruptive and unfair to the communities that have voted for a casino and will receive significant revenue from future operations."

Coakley, whose office oversees certification of ballot initiatives, on Tuesday defended her decision not to initially certify the initiative repealing the casino law and said the court's unanimous rejection of her argument would not impact her gubernatorial campaign. Her office will certify the ballot question on Tuesday, she said.

Secretary Galvin said he and Coakley already agreed on a one-sentence statement for the casino repeal question. Now, proponents and opponents of repealing casinos will submit a 150-word argument that will appear in the voter information guide the secretary of state prints for the election.

"Our determination on this question was never going to be the final word," Coakley said a press conference after the ruling. "It was always going to be before the court."

>>> For video of Coakley's press conference, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-06-24coakley/ <<<

The court made its decision "de novo" - Latin for anew - and "they don't rely on our decision, it doesn't have any particular weight," she said.

Coakley was also asked about the court faulting her argument.

"Implicit in the Attorney General's argument is that, because gambling falls within the core police power, there is no contractual right to a gaming license, but the application for a gaming license is separate and distinct from the operation of a gaming establishment and therefore falls outside the scope of the police power," the court wrote. "We reject this distinction and this departure from common sense."

Coakley said she believes the decision, written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants, was "thoughtful."

"I think it looks at the law and the facts and I think it reaches conclusions. I think sometimes the law is not commonsensical, in fairness, and I think we tried our best and I tried our best in our office . . . and I made the decision in this instance that it was the call that we made and I made. So I don't take that personally, I respect the court's decision and the analysis."

Coakley, who leads in the polls, argued that the ruling does not affect her gubernatorial campaign.

"I knew that we weren't the final call on this," she said. "We did what we were supposed to do and should have done. And I think we did it very well to make sure that we would get, as we've always said, the right result. I'm going to continue to make the calls I need to as attorney general based upon that job, I'm going to continue to discuss with voters the issues that are important to them. This is a result that now lets it go to the ballot and I'm perfectly satisfied with that decision."

The two Democratic candidates vying to replace Coakley in the attorney general's office are split in their views. Maura Healey, who worked in Coakley's office as head of the civil rights division, said she supports repealing the casino law, calling casinos "bad economic policy." Warren Tolman, a fellow Democrat and former state lawmaker, said he signed the petition placing the repeal on the ballot in November but he supports the casino law.

"In the end, I will vote against repeal," Tolman said. "I support the Legislature's decision to allow individual towns and cities like Springfield and Plainville to decide if they want a casino in their backyard. The people in these communities want the jobs and economic development that will be created."

MGM Springfield said it was prepared to make a case for casinos to voters statewide.

"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," MGM Springfield President Michael Mathis

said in a statement. "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."

Other candidates for various offices who weighed on the issue on Tuesday include:

-- Brian Herr, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate: "As the residents of Massachusetts continue to educate themselves, local referendums decisively rejecting resort-style casinos in Milford, Palmer, and East Boston have sent a strong message to the gaming industry and its champions on Beacon Hill. We are proud NIMBYs (Not In Massachusetts' Back Yard), and we will not back down. Please join me and your neighbors in supporting the Repeal The Casino Deal ballot initiative scheduled for this fall. Let's keep Massachusetts a great place to live, work and raise a family."

-- Rep. Thomas Conroy, a Wayland Democrat and candidate for treasurer, who opposes casinos: "For the last eight years, my approach to casino gambling has been the same as my approach to any other issue: gather the facts, talk to all the stakeholders, crunch the numbers, and reach a conclusion that serves the best interests of the people of our Commonwealth. Since 2008, I am the only state government official who has completed a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of casino gaming in Massachusetts. My conclusion was clear: the benefits would be outweighed by the costs, particularly the cost to cities and towns of hundreds of millions of dollars in local aid funds from the State Lottery, which is managed by the State Treasurer.

Andy Metzger contributed reporting.