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opinion | dante ramos

Suffolk Downs and Boston: A deeply political deal

The mitigation agreements that aspiring casino operators like Suffolk Downs have to strike with host communities like Boston are supposed to make up for traffic, crime, and other problems. But these deals, required by the state gambling law, have also become a way for casino boosters — not just would-be operators but also casino-friendly municipal leaders — to win voters over with promises of future goodies of all sorts.

Even by that standard, the deal that Suffolk Downs struck Tuesday with Mayor Tom Menino’s administration is unusually naked in its motivations.

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The track property lies on the border of Revere and East Boston. The deal with Boston calls for an annual payment to the city of at least $32 million a year — and potentially much more. Yet the deal also calls for a $33.4 million “upfront community fee,” which will be spent on projects in East Boston alone. This is notable because the neighborhood is the only part of Boston whose voters get a say on the deal; Suffolk Downs has enough influence with the Legislature, and so far with the City Council, to avoid the citywide vote required in all other host communities. And Tuesday’s deal continues the pretense that a casino would have little effect outside Eastie.

Boston’s history with single-neighborhood largesse is pretty grim; in the late 1990s, shunting tens of millions of dollars to a newly created, politically appointed agency called the South Boston Betterment Fund was the political price of building a convention center in the Seaport District. (Inevitably, scandal ensued.) The deal between Suffolk Downs and Boston looks a bit more transparent; the “upfront community fee” for Eastie would be committed to school and park improvements, a neighborhood business program, and a “state-of-the-art youth and senior citizen community center.” Yet this list seems calculated less to mitigate specific harms from a casino than to cultivate warm, fuzzy feelings among the voters of Eastie.

Meanwhile, the possibility of a political slush fund still looms. The first $20 million of each year’s payment to Boston would go not to the city treasury, but to a yet-to-be-established community mitigation trust. If voters citywide had a say on the casino — and they should — they’d be wise to ask what keeps that community trust from turning into another nebulous “betterment fund.”

Dante Ramos is the Globe’s deputy editorial page editor. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.
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