Here’s an early Christmas gift from me to all you casino opponents out there: The repeal could be real.
For months now, you have been furiously collecting signatures to get on the 2014 ballot to repeal our nascent casino law, even hiring about 20 people to stand in front of supermarkets. Well, last week you turned in over 90,000 signatures, and now the secretary of state says Repeal the Casino Deal appears to have the necessary signatures to move forward in the referendum process.
Of course, anything having to do with casinos in our state is complicated. Attorney General Martha Coakley dealt you an unexpected blow in September when her office ruled that repealing the casino law is unconstitutional. You appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, and that’s where you and the attorney general will likely square off.
Do you have a chance? You bet. There’s enough gray to fill a book with at least 50 shades.
“My first reaction: It sounds very thorny to me,” said former Justice John Greaney, who spent 20 years on the SJC and now teaches law at Suffolk University. “The only definitive way to settle that would be an opinion from my old court.”
Peter Sacks, a senior attorney and state constitutional expert in Coakley’s office, wrote in an 11-page decision that when casino companies pay substantial fees to apply for gaming licenses it’s an implied contract — and there’s an expectation that the gaming commission will award them. Contract rights are considered property, and as such, he noted, they may not be “taken” by an initiative petition.
But others disagree. Applicants may have paid a $400,000 fee to compete for a gaming license, and that might seem like a contract, but the casino law makes it clear the commission doesn’t have to hand out a slot parlor license or any of the three resort casino licenses. Because of that, applicants know they may go through the process and end up with nothing. They also know that once awarded a license, the commission can revoke or suspend it at any time.
“There is some kind of room for interpretation here,” said Lawrence Friedman, a professor at New England Law who wrote the book on the Massachusetts state constitution. (For real — it’s 245 pages long.) “The attorney general’s current opinion hangs on the conclusion that the casino applicants have an implied contract with the Commonwealth. Whether the applicants actually have such an interest is debatable.”
Greaney believes the SJC will deal with this case right away, given that the commission wants to hand out licenses by the spring. If the court sides with the repeal group, Greaney says, the commission may choose to suspend the licensing process until the ballot outcome because there would be so much uncertainty.
Ouch. For the pro-casino folks, Greaney just sounded like the Grinch who stole Christmas.
“I am sure they have thought about it,” he said of the possibility of delaying licenses. If the commission waits until the ballot passes, “it’s going to be a much bigger mess.”
Here, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Even if the SJC allows the petition to move forward, there are still more steps. Proposed ballot petitions are sent in January to the Legislature, which has until the first week of May to decide whether to trump voters and change laws in question preemptively. If no action is taken, proponents must gather another 11,485 signatures by July to get on the November ballot. Then, of course, there’s a vote.
To gambling opponents, the casino law has been an unwanted gift but with no easy return policy.
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Black Friday doorbuster: TJMaxx.com, which relaunched in September as an ecommerce site, has some fans. In October, the websites of TJX brands, largely driven by T.J. Maxx, attracted about 1 million unique visitors, an 88 percent increase from the previous month, according to Comscore. That’s about how many the Boston flash-sale site Rue La La had in October. When I reviewed TJMaxx.com, it was focused on women’s clothing, shoes, and accessories. Now it’s starting to branch out and sell some housewares, as well as stuff for men and kids.
Clarification: An earlier version of this column did not include that the Secretary of State’s office says Repeal the Casino Deal appears to have the necessary signatures to move forward in the referendum process. The column has been updated to include this information.