Gambling panel rejects Boston request to delay casino licensing
State gambling regulators unanimously denied Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s request Wednesday to delay the award of the Boston-area casino license until after voters decide in November whether to repeal the state casino law.
The state gambling commission intends to push ahead with its evaluation of a Mohegan Sun casino plan in Revere and a Wynn Resorts proposal in Everett and to name a winner, presuming the commission decides to award the license, in August or September, months before the election.
“It’s hard to understand how more information would adversely affect” the voters, said the board’s acting chairman, James McHugh. If the casino law is later repealed, “We’ll figure out how to gracefully fold up our tent.”
Walsh, who has insisted the city deserves more say about the casino plans on its borders, has had a bumpy relationship with the commission in his first six months in office, and it may soon get worse: The mayor may file a lawsuit against the gambling panel.
“As a result of today’s denial of a stay in this process, the city is pursuing and reviewing all available legal options,” Walsh said.
The mayor has previously tangled with the commission on his insistence that East Boston voters should have a right to hold a binding vote on the Mohegan Sun proposal and that Charlestown residents should vote on the Wynn project. Under state law, only the host community is afforded a binding vote on casino plans.
In an earlier ruling, the commission rejected Walsh’s assertion that Boston is a host community for the casino projects, saying the city qualifies for a lesser designation that does not permit a vote, but allows the city to negotiate with the developers for compensation or to seek it through arbitration.
In June, the Supreme Judicial Court threw a new wrinkle into the two-year process to license casinos in Massachusetts. In a unanimous ruling, the court cleared the way for a repeal of the 2011 casino law to appear on the November ballot. Attorney General Martha Coakley had ruled that the repeal measure was unconstitutional in 2013.
The citizen-led organization that promoted the anticasino ballot measure is transforming itself into a political campaign to advocate for repeal. Meanwhile, most of the gambling companies with a stake in Massachusetts are expected to spend heavily to defend the casino law and the industry’s access to the market.
Neither Mohegan Sun nor Wynn has managed to strike a compensation deal with Walsh.
The mayor suspended negotiations with both developers on Monday and said the city would not participate in arbitration proceedings until the commission ruled on the city’s request for delay.
In making the city’s case for a stay, Eugene O’Flaherty, corporation counsel for Boston, told commissioners at a hearing Wednesday that the city does not want to expend the time, effort, and cost of going through arbitration with developers if the casino law may be overturned in November.
He said public polling suggests the expanded gambling law would be repealed. “It is likely — not certain, but likely — that the repeal measure will pass,” he said.
A Boston Globe poll in June found that 52 percent of likely Massachusetts voters preferred to keep the casino law, and 41 percent favored repeal, though neither side has fully ramped up its campaign.
Another lawyer representing the city, Thomas Frongillo, said “it is absolutely no harm to [casino proponents] to wait 120 days. They have no credible argument.” The companies and officials who oppose a delay, he said, are “afraid of democracy.”
Boston’s request for a stay managed the remarkable feat of bringing proponents of the rival casino projects together on the same side of an issue.
Representatives of Mohegan Sun, Wynn Resorts, the City of Revere, and the City of Everett each spoke against a delay on Wednesday, and asked the commission to keep to its schedule.
The casino proponents said another four-month delay would reflect poorly on the licensing process and would only put off the long-awaited benefits of the gambling bill, such as construction jobs and tax revenue.
Commissioners agreed that the public would be better off if the board kept working. If the panel keeps to its schedule, voters will know which proposed site would host a casino and what the compensation package for Boston would include.