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The Boston Globe

Metro

Adrian Walker

Longer odds for casinos

Perhaps we will wake up one day and discover that the notion of casinos and slots in Massachusetts was all just a long, strange dream.

Maybe one morning in November it will be as if none of it ever happened: the moral debates on social ills, the alleged conflicts of interest, the high-powered lobbying, the sometimes-conflicted Gaming Commission, the characters straight out of “American Hustle.” All of it could easily dissolve into nothing.

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The Supreme Judicial Court had its say on casino gambling Tuesday, and the justices tossed a Molotov cocktail into everything that had been in place. By a unanimous vote, they ruled that a ballot question repealing casinos can (read: will) go on the ballot in November. The people, in their wisdom, shall decide — as they should.

The judges unanimously rejected the arguments of Attorney General Martha Coakley that the ballot question was unconstitutional, and the long push for casinos took yet another turn for the bizarre.

In truth, gaming has been something of a nightmare for some time now. In the years since Beacon Hill foisted casinos and slots on an long-ambivalent public, the project has never run smoothly, and the past year has been especially rocky.

While a few communities like Springfield and Revere embraced hosting casinos, less downtrodden cities and towns rejected them. In one comical twist, the Suffolk Downs operators decided that the track is really in Revere after they lost in East Boston, and won a second, Revere-only, vote. Gaming Commission chairman Steve Crosby has been mired in multiple perceived conflicts of interest, the latest being that he attended a fancy Kentucky Derby party at Suffolk Downs, which still has an application pending before his committee.

Then there’s Mayor Carlo DeMaria of Everett, longtime cheerleader for Steve Wynn’s effort to build a casino in his town. As the Globe reported Sunday, DeMaria never disclosed his relationship with two felons who were among the group that in 2009 bought the site Wynn hopes to build on. Their names have disappeared from official documents about the property, but questions about their involvement have prompted questions from federal and state officials. Felons can’t have any financial involvement in a casino, including being part owners of the property on which it sits.

The SJC gave new hope to casino opponents, who finally have a clear path to stop casinos. It also struck fear into casino supporters, who foresee a messy, expensive campaign that they are far from assured of winning.

What do voters think? In a Globe poll released less than a week ago, voters supported casinos 52 to 41 percent. But that’s just a baseline. Brace yourself for million-dollar campaigns on both sides this fall. I didn’t talk to anyone on either side Tuesday who pretended to know whether casinos will prevail or fail in November.

Of course, the ruling is a huge victory for anticasino forces, who would have been low on options if the ruling had gone the other way.

On the other hand, casinos have real support in a blue-collar city like Springfield, where they constitute the first viable economic development plan in years. I think casinos figure to do well in cities generally, partly because organized labor wants the jobs expected to come with them.

Still, there’s a nagging, if unscientific, sense that support for casinos has peaked. In the years since casinos were approved, the state’s economy has improved, and plenty of voters don't have much to gain from casinos now. In much of the state, the case against casinos is easier to make than the case for them.

It feels like eons since Governor Deval Patrick began talking about building casinos that could be these job-creating tourist destinations. That might have been an overstatement all along, but no one envisioned that the real action might take place at the SJC. Suddenly, casinos are no better than even money to happen at all.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.

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