Now that the Supreme Judicial Court has ordered that a referendum on repealing the state’s 2011 casino law appear on the November ballot, it’s time for political candidates to lead a serious debate on the legislation. Before the court’s unanimous decision on Tuesday, some gubernatorial candidates had deflected questions about the repeal, arguing that since the public might not even have a chance to vote in November, taking a position was premature. Now, though, voters should expect all candidates to explain where they stand, and why, on the hotly contested law.
The law was enacted out of understandable concern that Massachusetts was losing tax revenue to neighboring states with casinos like Connecticut and Rhode Island. But the Massachusetts law has been rife with problems. For instance, instead of devoting all revenues to public necessities like education, the law siphons off a percentage of the proceeds to the horse-racing industry, a special interest that lobbied heavily for the law’s passage. The law also slanted the playing field in favor of one politically connected applicant, the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston, by exempting it from the citywide referendum required of plans in other municipalities. Those provisions were emblematic of a law drafted with something less than the public interest in mind.
Politicians who have said they support the current law, including Republican Charlie Baker and Democratic candidates Steve Grossman, currently the state treasurer, and Martha Coakley, the attorney general, owe it to voters to explain why they find those tradeoffs acceptable. On the other side, Democrat Don Berwick and Republican Mark Fisher are the only gubernatorial candidates who back repealing the casino law, but they should spell out how they would replace the projected state revenues, and how they would prevent a successful repeal from damaging the state’s business reputation.
The court’s decision, which overturned a misguided effort by Coakley to keep the referendum off the ballot on technical grounds, means the entire state will get its first chance to have a say on the law. Pro- and anti-casino hardliners won’t change their minds between now and November, but many middle-of-the-road voters will find the casino question genuinely difficult, given the tradeoffs involved. A lot of pro-casino advertising money will probably pour into the state, while organized opponents of the proposed casinos will be out in force. The people who want to be the next governor — and who will preside over the fallout from the repeal, or the actual opening of casinos — need to step up to the debate, with all its complexities.