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The Boston Globe

Opinion

joan vennochi

Casinos are a slow bet in Massachusetts

Bay State plans for casino gambling are moving ahead like turtles on Ambien.

By law, the licensing process is slow and deliberate. In practice, debate about it tends to be long-winded.

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On Tuesday, after a drawn-out discussion about various ways of addressing the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and its inability to finalize a casino deal, Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby asked if panel members had “any more convoluted thinking” to offer.

Commissioner James McHugh took issue with the word “convoluted” — he preferred “complex.” Crosby conceded the difference; and then, as part of a relatively quick two-hour meeting, commissioners approved a motion to give the tribe 90 more days to come up with a compact.

If it can’t, the gaming board may open up a casino license for the southeastern region of Massachusetts to commercial bidders.

Or maybe it won’t. Commissioners couldn’t decide if the March 15 deadline is a final cut-off date or just a trigger for more talk. The tribe met a July 31 deadline, but the deal hammered out with Governor Deval Patrick was rejected by the federal government.

Casino developers are worried the slow pace puts them at an increasingly competitive disadvantage — especially with New Hampshire lawmakers threatening to quickly take up proposals to expand gambling in that state.

Massachusetts’ painfully slow pace is great news for casino opponents.

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From Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where he is recovering from a variety of illnesses, Mayor Thomas M. Menino griped that by the time the proposal he favors for Suffolk Downs is taken up, “all the worth of it will be drawn out of it. New Hampshire is ready to go.”

Developers behind the Suffolk Downs proposal are surely praying for Menino’s speedy recovery after Las Vegas casino builder Steve Wynn expressed interest in a 37-acre parcel in nearby Everett. They need the mayor’s muscle in the long, laborious licensing competition that lies ahead.

It has already taken two decades to get to this point.

In November 2011, after a mere 20-plus years of debate, Patrick signed a bill allowing up to three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts and one slots parlor. The next month, Patrick named Crosby to lead the commission.

A year later, the commission is still searching for an executive director after the one it planned on installing last summer ran up against a prior allegation that he had sexually assaulted a 15-year-old boy in Florida. Since then, the commission winnowed down dozens of prospects to a handful of finalists who may or may not be identified by the end of the year. Stay tuned for more controversy over that issue.

Several towns have already rejected casino proposals and the commission is mired in self-described “convoluted thinking” about who should get the license in the southeastern region.

Casino applications are due Jan. 15. Four developers — including those behind Suffolk Downs — have already put in the required $400,000 fee. Wynn has participated in a “scope of licensing” meeting, which signals intent, but has not gone beyond that, according to the commission’s communications director, Elaine Driscoll.

The commission is balancing the need for careful background checks against a desire to expedite the process, said Driscoll. In the meantime, the Massachusetts law was crafted in a way that deliberately slows the process down, she said.

In Ohio, enabling legislation dictated where casinos would be located; the Massachusetts law calls for competitive bids. In Pennsylvania, existing race tracks were grandfathered in, allowing for a quick start-up, which also led to a grand jury investigation. In Maryland, the already existing lottery commission was authorized to license and regulate casinos. In Massachusetts, a new commission was created.

It held its first public meeting in April and, as Driscoll put it, “the smell of new carpet is still in the air.” The commission is subject to the open meeting law, so all its deliberations take place in public. That leads to very careful discussion.

The commission plans to first deal with the slots parlor, on the theory that the process will be less complicated and therefore quicker than what’s required for a full resort casino. Requiring local approval by a proposed host community, plus dealing with environmental and traffic issues, all add to the complications.

The painfully slow pace is great news for casino opponents — and for competitors everywhere but in Massachusetts.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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