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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

No sure bet on casinos

Casino backers know they’re in trouble if an initiative to repeal gambling legislation goes before voters in November. The polls are too close for comfort.

So a new front has opened in the fight to keep the question off the ballot: If voters turn back casinos, gambling boosters say, the state will be seen as hostile to business.

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This bosh has traveled fast and far. Last week, it came up at the Supreme Judicial Court hearing on whether the repeal can be put to voters. “What do you say to the argument . . . that if you prevail, this will have a chilling effect on all businesses . . . that are thinking about engaging in activities here,” Chief Justice Roderick Ireland asked an attorney for casino opponents.

“Taxachusetts, in another iteration,” Judge Margot Botsford called the possible PR hit.

But repealing the legislation would say nothing about the business climate in this state. It would say nothing about state government, which beckoned gambling titans hither.

It would, however, say something about voters here. Among the possibilities: That they don’t like casinos. Or that they like it in theory, but not when faced with the prospect of casinos in their backyard. Or that they’re turned off by the ickiness they’ve seen so far, the iffy players in Everett and Suffolk Downs, the disregard for voters in East Boston, the poor judgment of Gaming Commission head Steve Crosby.

If you’re inclined to think Massachusetts is a good place to do business, a casino repeal would hardly be likely to change your mind. “It’s just scare tactics,” says David D’Alessandro, former chief executive of John Hancock. D’Alessandro, a gambling opponent, says companies are attracted to Massachusetts for its universities, its educated workforce, and the great schools and neighborhoods it offers employees and their families. A repeal would change none of that.

“It’s an incredible place to grow a business,” says state Senator Dan Wolf, also a casino opponent. His Cape Air employs 500 people here. “It’s almost insulting to say voting casinos down sends a hostile message to business. It sends a message that . . . we think we can do better.”

The state is “extremely successful without gambling,” says Grand Circle Travel chief Alan Lewis, who reckons that casinos’ expensive fallout — the decline of local businesses, the attendant social problems — will hurt us in the long run.

Not everybody takes such a rosy view of our business climate. But even if you’re one of the pessimists, it’s hard to see how voters repealing the gambling legislation changes anything.

Talk to Mike Widmer, head of the business-funded Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, and you get a pretty grim picture of the climate here. It costs more to do business here, with higher prices for energy, health, labor, and unemployment insurance. A lot of companies decide the higher costs are worth it, then are driven batty by how long it takes to get anything built. “The culture of this state, it’s like chopping through the jungles of the Amazon,” he says. On top of that, there’s tax uncertainty. We’re no longer Taxachusetts (our corporate burden is lower than most states, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center), but we’ve seen increases under Democrats and Republicans. Last year’s tech tax, eventually repealed, freaked out the innovative companies that are this state’s future. On top of that, Widmer says, we’re “too smug.” Other states try harder to court new businesses.

Okeydokey, that all sounds pretty bad. But we’re supposed to believe that, with all of these woes, repealing gambling legislation would be our Waterloo? That somehow, corporate types faced with all the hurdles or all the great stuff that Massachusetts presents would look upon voters’ rejection of casinos and suddenly decide this state is not worth their time?

Come on. The only companies that should be scared away by a repeal are gambling outfits. And from the start, they knew there were a hundred ways it could fall apart. They knew Massachusetts had banned live greyhound racing at the ballot in 2008. They knew a repeal effort began just days after the gaming law was signed.

They took their chances.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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