The state’s highest court on Monday is expected to hear two irreconcilable positions in a high-profile case about access to the statewide ballot, and the outcome could decide the future of the gambling industry in Massachusetts.
Casino opponents have asked the Supreme Judicial Court to permit a measure seeking the repeal of the state casino law to appear on the November ballot. If such a referendum passed, it would roll back the casino industry in Massachusetts, three years after lawmakers passed legislation to open the state to Las Vegas-style gambling.
Those fighting the repeal say the casino issue was debated ad nauseam in the Legislature for years, and Massachusetts should not chase away an industry poised to invest billions of dollars in the state’s struggling cities.
It will be up to the court to decide whether the repeal may go forward to the ballot. A decision is expected this summer. Secretary of State William F. Galvin needs to know the outcome by July 9 in order to have enough time to prepare the ballot, according to court documents. If the repeal goes ahead, casino industry leaders say their development efforts would be hamstrung until the issue is decided at the election. The state gambling commission “has not and will not take a position on either the SJC proceedings or the repeal effort,” said its chairman, Stephen Crosby, in a statement.
Governor Deval Patrick said he had not thought about the legal question of whether the repeal should qualify for the ballot, but offered a strong defense of the law he signed in 2011. “It’s a thoughtful bill being thoughtfully implemented . . . and I think done with great care,” Patrick said Friday. “It will be good for the Commonwealth.”
The gambling industry already has had a bumpy rollout in Massachusetts, punctuated by lawsuits, failed local referendums, sniping between communities, and, most recently, a public dispute over Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s efforts to assert authority over two casino proposals on the city’s borders with Revere and Everett.
John Ribeiro, the 44-year-old Winthrop activist who leads the Repeal the Casino Deal campaign, said gambling opponents had anticipated the repeal would gain momentum when the state moved toward licensing as many as three resort casinos and one slot parlor.
“We recognized the flaws in the law and that it would be messy,” Ribeiro said. “Now you have Boston pitted against Revere, pitted against Everett. You have Winthrop left out in the cold. You have other communities around the state that are in the same situation — they have no say.
“You can’t simplify it any more than the people should have a right to vote,” he added.
However, former state economic development secretary Dan O’Connell, head of the business advocacy group Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, said the repeal effort sends bad signals to businesses looking to expand into Massachusetts.
“We’re concerned about changing the rules in the middle of the game,” O’Connell said. “If this issue is rehashed once again on the ballot — a rather blunt-edged way to deal with a public policy issue — we don’t think that’s a good thing for the state’s reputation, and for a business-friendly climate of regulatory predictability.”
Despite the possibility of a repeal, the state gambling commission has continued working toward awarding the casino licenses it controls.
In February, the commission chose a Penn National Gaming project in Plainville as the winner of the state’s sole slot parlor license. The commission has just one viable applicant for the Western Massachusetts resort casino license: an MGM proposal in Springfield. MGM has asked regulators not to officially award MGM the license until the repeal is settled.
Two projects are competing for the Greater Boston license: Wynn Resorts in Everett and Mohegan Sun in Revere. The commission expects to choose the winner later this year.
A resort casino license in Southeastern Massachusetts is on a later timetable.
Casinos have gone before the voters in municipal elections over the past year, with mixed results. Voters in Revere, Springfield, Everett, Plainville, Leominster, and Raynham supported the industry; voters in West Springfield, Palmer, East Boston, and Milford rejected it.
Casino opponents had hoped to get the repeal onto the ballot without going through the courts, but state Attorney General Martha Coakley dealt the repeal effort a setback last fall, concluding that the petition was unconstitutional. Coakley said the repeal would “impair the implied contracts between the commission and gaming license applicants” and illegally take those contract rights without compensation.
Leaders of the repeal movement appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, and collected signatures while the appeal was pending. They collected more than the minimum 68,911 valid signatures necessary to qualify to go forward, if they get a favorable ruling from the court.
Lawyers for the repeal campaign say there are no valid implied contracts between the operators and the gambling commission. “Having voluntarily entered into a heavily regulated industry subject to pervasive government control, applicants lack a private property interest that requires compensation when the government chooses to modify the program that created the benefit in the first place,” the repeal campaign has argued in court documents.
Parties on both sides have weighed in with briefs in the case, including Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield, the town of Plainville, the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, and the antigambling group Stop Predatory Gambling.