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On casinos, Walsh should use all tools to defend city’s interest

Mayor Walsh has a weak hand with the state gaming commission, but at least he’s playing it as aggressively as he can. The state gambling law, which Walsh supported as a state representative in 2011, gives cities little power to stop casinos outside their geographic borders. So even though the two proposed Greater Boston-area casinos — one in Everett, the other in Revere — sit on Boston’s doorstep and would clog the city’s bridges and highways, it looks unlikely that Boston will qualify as a “host community” under the legislation’s narrow definition. But the mayor still has some tools to defend the city’s interests, and he’s right to use them.

Since Walsh took office in January, the city’s first line of attack has been to claim that, in fact, Boston counts as a host community for both sites. Both rely on Boston’s airport. Further, Boston’s lawyers say the gaming commission has no authority to rule the city lacks host status. And, while arguing there’s nothing for the commission to decide, Walsh also wants Gaming Commission chair Steve Crosby to recuse himself from any decision, arguing that he’s biased against the city. It’s a kitchen-sink strategy, with the city throwing out tactics and hoping that one will stick.

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Walsh’s stated goal is to secure an up-or-down referendum on the Everett plan for voters in next-door Charlestown, and a vote on the Revere plan for next-door East Boston. If Boston is indeed a host community, such a vote would be required before the commission can grant a license. But ordering a vote in Boston would delay, and probably doom, both plans. The Everett proposal is unpopular in Charlestown because of traffic concerns, and East Boston voters already rejected an earlier incarnation of the proposal for a casino at Suffolk Downs that was much more favorable to the neighborhood than the current blueprint.

It’s not clear, though, if a referendum is really what Walsh is after. After all, he’s also said that he’s “not looking to kill anything.” The mayor may have decided that talking tough with the commission is the only way to put pressure on the casino operators to cough up better terms for Boston. Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas mogul backing the Everett plan, could do more to mitigate traffic in Charlestown, and Suffolk Downs could restore the benefits it promised the East Boston community last year. If the city’s legal maneuvering doesn’t force Wynn and Suffolk Downs to do more, Walsh still has a few more arrows left in his quiver: He could threaten to throw his weight behind the effort to repeal the casino law unless the two developers meet his demands for Boston.

While battling politically, though, Walsh and the city’s lawyers should still put up their strongest legal arguments in front of the gaming commission as it weighs the issue on Thursday. While winning recognition as a host community at Everett is unlikely, the Suffolk Downs plan is murkier. Until November, there was no question that both Boston and Revere counted as host communities for Suffolk Downs, since the property straddles the border. But when East Boston voters rejected the casino proposal, the racetrack hastily revised its plan, moving the planned casino facilities to the Revere side. The track then entered an agreement with Mohegan Sun to run the casino, making the track a nominally separate entity, in hopes commissioners won’t view the track, which is mostly in East Boston, as part of the casino. That’s a dubious shell-game — a “legal fiction,” as casino opponents aptly put it. When Suffolk Downs officials warned recently that this racing season may be the last unless Mohegan Sun gets a casino license, they further undercut any notion that the track is an independent enterprise. Walsh and the city can make a strong case that the commission should reject the charade.

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