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Mass. gambling foes aim for a referendum

A group of casino opponents met at Wesley United Methodist Church in Framingham to plan for a statewide ballot question to repeal the state’s casino law.

Jon Chase for the Boston Globe

A group of casino opponents met at Wesley United Methodist Church in Framingham to plan for a statewide ballot question to repeal the state’s casino law.

FRAMINGHAM — Gambling opponents from across Massachusetts mapped out plans in a church basement Saturday to repeal the 2011 state law allowing resort casinos.

The first significant step for the group is to gather more than 70,000 signatures from registered voters by late November of this year. If the signature drive is successful, they probably will ask voters to repeal the casino law in a statewide ballot question in November 2014.

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The anticasino group, called Repeal the Casino Deal, includes activists who are fighting specific casinos in their own communities; a national antigovernment-sponsored gambling organization called Stop Predatory Gambling; a former state senator; and a Hampshire College architecture professor who wrote a book on gambling in the United States.

“This was rammed through without a democratic process,’’ Robert Goodman, author of “The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of American’s Gambling Explosion,” said of the state law during Saturday’s strategy session. “Whether you are for it or against it, let’s get it on the ballot.’’

Getting the question before voters — and persuading them to back a repeal — will be a steep climb that requires considerable work and money.

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The 2011 casino law authorized up to three resort casinos in Massachusetts — no more than one in each of three regions of the state — and one slots parlor that can be built in any region. Opponents argued passionately that casinos promote addiction and prey on the poor.

But in the end, the Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick decided casinos would create thousands of jobs and bring tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue to the state.

Eleven developers, including three in Greater Boston, have applied to the state gambling commission for the casino and the slots parlor licenses. The bulk of the $4.4 million in applications fees collected by the state pays for the commission to investigate each developer, to weed out any company with shaky finances, or with people of questionable character in key positions.

Developers must win approval from their host communities in a voter referendum to complete their applications for a casino license. The state gambling commission will award licenses through a competitive process.

The statewide ballot initiative would give opponents a second shot at keeping out casinos.

Opponents may have several factors working in their favor: The economy has improved since the Legislature debated the 2011 casino law, and a number of casinos nationwide are struggling financially. They include Revel AC Inc., in Atlantic City, N.J., which received significant government support in the form of tax rebates that helped it raise construction funds.

John Ribeiro, who lives in Winthrop and is leading the ballot initiative, said the group has until September to have the repeal language approved by the attorney general’s office. Then, activists will have 8 to 10 weeks to collect signatures. About 70,000 names are required, but the group plans to collect 100,000 to ensure they have the necessary number of registered voters.

“There are 70,000 signatures out there easily,’’ said Charlotte Burns, who heads Quaboag Valley Against Casinos in Western Massachusetts. “A lot of people are disgusted with the whole thing and disappointed with [Governor] Patrick. I am hoping this is going to be the beginning of a movement.’’

Former state Senator Susan Tucker, who represented Andover and neighboring communities, said she opposes casinos because the industry “makes its profits off of addiction.’’ But she warned that developers and their supporters will work hard to thwart the ballot drive.

State Senator Stan Rosenberg, a Northampton Democrat who favors the gambling law, agreed that “a lot of money will be spent’’ to defeat the repeal effort and that most polls show the public supports giving people the option of gambling.

Rosenberg said he could not predict the outcome of a referendum, but it is possible that some developers will have already begun construction in November 2014. If the repeal measure passes, he said, “that would be quite an interesting mess.’’

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.
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