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Casino firms may unite to fight repeal of state law

Casino developers deeply invested in Massachusetts are discussing joining forces on a political campaign to protect the state’s 2011 casino law and preserve the gambling industry’s access to an estimated $1.7 billion market.

Though they hope to be competitors eventually, MGM Resorts, Penn National Gaming, and Mohegan Sun have been driven together by mutual interest to fight a threatened repeal of the state casino law, which the state’s high court cleared for a vote in November.

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They have not yet settled on the specifics of a coordinated campaign, but the gambling companies are “going to end up working together in different ways and various forms,” said MGM executive Michael Mathis, president of the company’s Springfield casino project, which has been promised the state’s Western Massachusetts resort casino license.

“I think there is a real sense that we all need to work together to educate the Commonwealth about all the benefits of the gaming law,” he said.

For all its wealth and high-powered consultants, the Massachusetts casino industry has so far lacked a cohesive strategy to push its message — more jobs and tax revenue — and to counter attacks from those backing repeal.

RELATED: SJC allows a casino repeal vote

The companies are highly motivated to develop a strong campaign to fight a ballot initiative that has the gambling industry facing extinction in Massachusetts before the first casino even opens its doors. They are expected to be joined by labor unions in the fight to preserve the casino law.

The Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday ruled that a citizen-sponsored casino repeal measure can appear on the November ballot, overruling a decision last year by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who had concluded the repeal was unconstitutional.

With a statewide referendum just four months away, both sides have pledged to run fierce campaigns.

“It would not surprise me if $10 million is spent on media ads,” said Paul DeBole, assistant professor of political science at Lasell College and a specialist on gambling regulation.

The companies were not ready Wednesday to offer a campaign budget.

“There will be an appropriate amount of print and air time devoted to the effort,” Mathis said. “We don’t know yet what that is.”

Eric Schippers, a senior vice president for Penn National, said the money spent on the other side, in favor of casino repeal, could affect the spending calculus for the industry’s defense of the law.

“If we see money coming in from competing interests from out of state, that certainly is going to change things and may escalate things,” Schippers said. “It’s going to depend upon what sort of outside money comes into this fight.”

Penn in February won the state’s sole slot parlor license, for a project at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. Penn did the local casino industry a big favor by taking a chance, paying the $25 million state licensing fee and starting construction despite the threat of repeal. Casino-related construction jobs — touted for years as one of the benefits of the expanded gambling law — are no longer just theoretical, and Penn can make the political argument that repeal would cost people their livelihoods.

The companies are counting on labor unions to be a key component of their pro-casino coalition.

Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, said his union will be active in the fight to defeat the repeal effort, though he declined to discuss specifics.

“We supported the legislation when it was passed, and we’ll be mobilizing our members to vote against repeal,” he said. “We will undoubtedly use all the various tools at our disposal.”

The issue, he said, is vitally important to labor.

“There’s a lot of jobs at stake and, I think, an economic boost for the Commonwealth at stake,” he said.

Casino companies also intend to enlist support from business owners who want to sell products and services to the industry, city and state officials hungry for casino tax revenue, tourism bureaus, potential casino employees, and the state’s horse racing industry, which would benefit from larger race purses if casinos open.

The first phase of the campaign “is really grassroots outreach,” to organize supporters and expand the industry’s base of support, Mathis said. “It’s going to take a lot of time on the ground. There is no shortcut to that.”

Mohegan Sun, which is competing for the Boston-area casino license with Wynn Resorts, confirmed in a statement the company “will also join the chorus of others making the case to voters on why this law is good for workers, good for the economy, and good for the commonwealth.” Wynn Resorts declined to comment.

For casino opponents, the campaign strategy is to build a superior field organization, said Darek Barcikowski, manager for the citizen-led Repeal the Casino Deal effort.

“We don’t expect to compete with the casinos on multi-million-dollar media buys,” Barcikowski said. “If we have a solid ground game and people hear from their neighbors about why casinos are bad for Massachusetts . . . that will carry much more weight than the messaging the casinos will put on the air waves.”

Opponents must “start talking to people, start knocking on doors, hitting the phones, calling people,” he said.

The repeal campaign is raising money and will have a presence on the air waves, Barcikowski said. “We are confident we will raise the money we need to compete,” he said.

David D’Alessandro, former chief executive of John Hancock and a supporter of repealing the law, said he believes the casino opponents can raise $2 million, though the campaign “will be about getting grass roots votes out.”

The repeal effort apparently has passed a final technical hurdle — submitting at least 11,485 signatures to be certified for the initiative to secure a place on the November ballot.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Wednesday that it appears the pro-repeal group has collected more than enough valid signatures.

Galvin anticipates that the casino repeal — “a real water-cooler issue” — will drive public debate this fall and lead to higher turnout in the November election.

Travis Andersen contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at Mark.Arsenault
@globe.com
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