Questioning the process behind the casino deal
After months of tortured deliberations, a deal has finally been struck for a casino at Suffolk Downs.
Under terms of the agreement unveiled Tuesday, the city would get at least $32 million a year from the casino developer, a number that could rise substantially if the casino rakes in enough revenue.
The deal is still subject to the approval of East Boston voters in a referendum. If the powers that be have their way, that vote will be a mere formality. The bid to sell the casino to the neighborhood has been going full-throttle for months, highlighted by the promise of plenty of jobs.
This is exactly the kind of deal that you would expect to be a raging issue in the middle of a mayor's race, yet it isn't exactly. Like so much else, it was mostly settled by one person, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, surely the most powerful lame-duck mayor in Boston history.
Judged on the mayor's terms, it's a good deal. But Menino's outsized influence has all but short-circuited the vitally important debate over whether the city needs a casino in the first place.
The agreement is a monument to the unique Boston institution of "mitigation," which might best be described to someone new to town as "legalized extortion." Under its terms, the developer will pay about $33.4 million directly to East Boston, much of it dedicated to upgrading parks, schools, and the like. It guarantees 4,000 permanent jobs, without detailing what the jobs are. It lays out a formula under which the city's annual cut could rise to as much as $80 million a year, if the casino hits certain optimistic benchmarks.
Big as those numbers seem to you and me — or to East Boston voters — they are small change to an international gambling conglomerate.
A couple of the candidates to succeed Menino have opposed the deal, for different reasons.
Bill Walczak, the longtime head of the Codman Square Health Center, sees casinos as a pathway to gambling addiction. He also believes East Boston would be better served by a different kind of development. Walczak has called for a second Innovation District, modeled after the one in South Boston.
"Boston doesn't need to do this to attract jobs," Walczak said Tuesday. "If you drive around East Boston, you see all these signs that say, 'It's about jobs.' But what about good jobs?"
Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley describes himself as a "casino agnostic," but opposes the East Boston-only referendum. "This needs to be discussed and vigorously debated," Conley said. "I think the people need a voice, and I continue to strongly assert that we should have a citywide referendum on this question with all the pros and cons debated, including this mitigation agreement."
Unfortunately, the East Boston-only referendum cannot be undone: It is part of the state legislation that creates casinos. But that doesn't mean it's too late for the city to debate the merits of a casino and to demand more details about why Boston should support it.
Like Conley, I'm a casino agnostic. Massachusetts long ago made its peace with boosting revenue through billions of dollars in legalized gaming.
But the process by which we have reached this presumed fait accompli stinks. With virtually no public deliberation, a casino seems headed to East Boston, and only its proponents seem capable of mounting a campaign. This is an absolutely terrible way for government to make decisions, no matter how many parks get refurbished in the process.
Unfortunately, it's the kind of government we've become all too accustomed to through 20 years of one-man rule. This is the Menino legacy in a nutshell: He decided what he wanted and people got in line, including most of his would-be successors. A changing of the guard should offer the promise of a more open government. Based on the casino deal, that's no sure thing.