Nearly two years after East Boston voters rejected a proposal to build a resort casino at Suffolk Downs, voters across Massachusetts may be asked yet again to consider reviving the racetrack with slot machines.
A proposal to allow a second slots casino to be built at a horse racing track was among the 22 initiative petitions certified by Attorney General Maura Healey this week. If proponents succeed in winning thousands of signatures of support, the question could go before voters in November 2016.
That’s a grim prospect for opponents of gambling in East Boston, who have repeatedly beaten back efforts to revive Suffolk Downs with one of the casino licenses the state authorized in 2011. Horse racing at Suffolk Downs was declared dead last year, though it is being temporarily revived this weekend with a series of racing festivals.
“We’ve been doing nothing but following this for the last four years,” said Matt Cameron, a lawyer who works with the No Eastie Casino opposition group. “There is something so maddening about the idea that we have to do this again.”
At this point, it’s not even clear who his group will be fighting. While the initiative petition was written with very particular language that seems tailor-made for Suffolk Downs, a track official denied that the facility or its union is involved.
“It’s not us,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer.
The proponent named on the petition, Eugene McCain, did not return phone calls. The 10 other signers live in communities as varied as Hull, Needham, Dover, and West Springfield.
The law that paved the way for casinos to be opened in Massachusetts called for three resort casinos, each located in a separate region of the state, and one competitively-bid slots facility, which has already opened at the Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville. The resort casino slated for Greater Boston has been heavily disputed, but seemed to be coming into focus last week, when the state granted Wynn Resorts an environmental permit to build a $1.7 billion casino in Everett. Wynn’s chief competitor had been Suffolk Downs — which had ejected its first partner, Caesars Entertainment, after concerns were raised about investors’ background checks, then was struck down by voters on the 2013 ballot.
Suffolk Downs then tried moving the project, which spanned East Boston and Revere, across the line into Revere, where a majority of voters supported the casino in 2013 and in a second referendum last year.
But Suffolk Downs lost out again earlier this year when the state Gaming Commission favored Wynn’s proposal over Suffolk Downs’s bid with Mohegan Sun — ironically spelling the death knell for the nearly 80-year-old racetrack that Massachusetts’ casino bill was written to save.
“The residents of East Boston have spoken loud and clear about how they feel about a gaming facility at Suffolk Downs. That was an unequivocal no,” said state Representative Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat.
“If it is Suffolk Downs, which we don’t know,” Madaro added, “I would feel that this is a complete circumvention of the community process.”
The petition calls for issuing an additional slots license to a gaming establishment at least four acres large that is within 1,500 feet of an adjacent horse racing track, along with paddocks, barns, auditorium, amphitheater, and/or bleachers. The language even specifies that the track must have “hosted a horse racing meeting,” and that the establishment cannot be separated from a track by a highway.
Opponents had hoped that the petition would be rejected as a local matter; statewide ballot questions cannot be isolated to a specific community. However, the attorney general found the language to be broad enough that it might apply to a number of communities.
Among the other facilities that might qualify, Cameron said, are the sites in Plainville, which already won the slots license; and Brockton, which is expected to win a full casino license. Opponents fear they have to gear up for yet another battle over East Boston.
“Now we’re talking about a statewide question about what happens in our backyard,” Cameron said.
Healey has been critical of casinos, particularly the Wynn facility proposed near her home in Charlestown, and recently unsuccessfully urged the state to demand more thorough traffic impact studies before permitting the Wynn casino.
But spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said that in reviewing each of the petitions, the attorney general focused on whether each meets constitutional muster and is clear in its wording.
“Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter how the attorney general feels about the substance of the matter,” she said. She noted that Healey rejected a ballot question that would have overruled the Supreme Court’s decision allowing corporate campaign donations — an effort she supports — because it did not meet the constitutional requirement.