Mass. casino law filled with tight deadlines
Gambling panel may miss key dates
The leader of the fledgling gambling commission is warning that the state casino law contains several unrealistic deadlines that could force regulators to solicit bids for casinos before they have the expertise to judge the billion-dollar projects or get public input on the scope of the developments.
Under the law, for instance, the commission could have to develop criteria for judging casino proposals and seek bids by October.
“I can’t imagine that we would be ready by then,’’ said Stephen Crosby, the designated chairman of the new Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which is responsible for overseeing the development of up to three resort-style casinos and one slot parlor, a projected capital investment that could top $3 billion.
While the commission could ask for legislation to extend its deadlines, House and Senate leaders appear reluctant to revisit the controversial gambling law.
“As soon as you open up the bill, you open it up for another debate on any number of issues,’’ said state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and one of the architects of the casino law. A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he believes the deadlines are reasonable.
The commission’s time crunch dates to last fall, said Crosby. The legislative debate over legalizing casino gambling took longer than many had expected, and Governor Deval Patrick did not sign the bill into law until late November. Patrick named Crosby as chairman of the new gambling commission in December.
But the other four appointments took much longer. Some potential candidates were turned off by the intense scrutiny that will come with the job for a comparably low professional salary of $112,500. The politicians who appoint the commissioners were cautious in their picks, knowing a bad choice might hurt the state and be a political liability.
Two more commissioners have been named since February, with the final two expected to be named this week, before Wednesday’s deadline for appointments.
By the time the gambling commission meets for the first time, within the next several weeks, it may have already missed a deadline of its own.
By April 1, under the casino law, the commission should have completed an analysis of state law on charitable gambling, decided what updates, amendments, and repeals are needed, drafted new legislation, and submitted the bills to the General Assembly.
A missed report on church raffles is a minor issue, but more significant deadlines hit in mid-April and May, when the gaming commission begins to take over duties of the State Racing Commission, which is charged with regulating tracks and keeping the racing industry honest.
Crosby said the new commission is not ready to oversee racing, and rushing to get up to speed would be a distraction from its main mission.
“In order to do our job well - the main job of making decisions on up to three casinos and a slot parlor - we have a huge amount of work to do,’’ said Crosby. “Anything that’s nonessential to that, we ought to try to keep out of our bailiwick.’’
He wants to delay the commission’s takeover of the racing industry for at least a year, perhaps by “delegating back the management of the Racing Commission to the people who are doing it now so that nothing changes,’’ he said.
Patrick is willing to listen to the commission’s recommendations, according to spokesman Brendan Ryan. “Once the commission is fully appointed, they will have to evaluate what needs to be done and when,’’ Ryan said in a statement. “The most important thing is that the commission get this right, and we’ll work with them in any way they need to make sure they are able to do that.’’
The most significant deadline looms in October, when the commission could be compelled to solicit bids for two gambling facilities.
The October deadline will come into play if Patrick cannot finalize an agreement for a federally approved tribal casino in Southeastern Massachusetts. Patrick is beginning negotiations with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which is pursuing a casino in Taunton. Such agreements, known in federal law as compacts, are long and complicated legal documents that meticulously spell out details on how a tribal casino would be run and how much of its profits, if any, go to the state.
The clock is already ticking on the negotiations: If the compact is not finished and approved by the Legislature by July 31, the gambling commission is required to solicit bids from commercial developers for a resort casino in Southeastern Massachusetts by Oct. 31.
And that is not all.
The casino law also says the commission must solicit bids for the slot parlor before any of the gambling resorts, so, if the October deadline is triggered, the commission would have to go out to bid for two gambling facilities by that time.
“I don’t know what we would do, frankly,’’ said Crosby. “But that’s what the law calls for, so we would have to figure out what to do.’’
The Patrick administration is confident it will get the compact done in time, but winning legislative approval for the pact by July 31 could be more difficult, said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor.