Mass. casino foes look to rechannel their voices
Having failed to block the gambling industry from the state, anticasino activists are reassessing their roles and beginning to evolve into watchdog and public service groups for the coming era of Las Vegas-style gambling in Massachusetts.
“None of us are willing to just roll over and walk away,” said Celeste Myers, a former Massachusetts House candidate and a leader of No Eastie Casino, a citizens’ group that fought for years against a casino proposal at Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Revere. “We have every intention of morphing to meet the next phase.”
One part of that next phase could be embracing roles that will keep their cause in front of state regulators.
Myers said state law and local agreements between casino companies and municipalities call for the creation of advisory boards on gambling policy. “I’d like to see some folks who have been active in the anticasino movement be selected to some of these oversight committees,” she said.
The anticasino movement is coming off a tremendous Election Day setback, when state voters defeated a ballot measure that would have repealed the 2011 state casino law and banned the gambling industry from the state.
Opponents of the industry claimed during the campaign that casinos would bring more traffic, crime, and gambling addiction. Casino supporters — backed by millions of dollars from the industry — focused their campaign on the thousands of jobs casinos would create.
The vote against repeal cleared the way for Penn National Gaming to open the state’s first slot parlor in June at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. In about three years, the state’s first resort casinos are expected to open in downtown Springfield, where MGM is planning an $800 million gambling and entertainment resort, and on the Mystic River waterfront in Everett, where Wynn Resorts intends to build a $1.6 billion casino hotel.
The state gambling commission is soliciting bids from developers for one additional resort casino, in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Leaders of the statewide anticasino group Faith for Repeal, which organized religious leaders against the gambling industry, met informally last Monday to talk about what — if anything — the group should do next, said Rob Pyles, who was a coordinator for Faith for Repeal during the fall campaign.
The opening of casinos “is a very serious thing that will have major repercussions for the state,” he said. “It’s happening; they’re coming. So what’s our role? Do we disband and say we tried? Or do we channel what we’ve already built into some sort of mechanism for accountability?”
No decisions have been made, he said, but the group seems interested in staying involved, perhaps as a watchdog dedicated to making sure casino companies live up to their promises and to oppose any effort by the gambling industry to soften requirements in the state casino law or to reduce the tax rate on gambling profits.
“There is a lot of concern in our group that when casinos do not hit their projections, are they going to threaten layoffs unless the state lowers the tax rate?” Pyles said.
Resort casinos will pay a 25 percent tax on gambling revenue. The slot parlor will pay 49 percent.
Steve Abdow, who was involved during the campaign with Faith for Repeal and another anticasino group, Repeal the Casino Deal, was scheduled to meet with Western Massachusetts anticasino activists Monday to discuss ways to stay involved.
“We are mulling things over,” he said. “Nothing is definite, but there is a chance we’ll try some things to keep an eye out, to safeguard and ensure that the Commonwealth’s interest is protected.”
One of the state’s most outspoken casino opponents, the Right Rev. Douglas John Fisher, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, has set up a task force to reach out to church leaders in states that already have casinos to research ways to help people who may be negatively affected.
“As followers of Jesus, we need to embrace this new reality and do what we can to address human suffering and be a source of healing and compassion,” Fisher said in a statement last month.