Back in 2011, the skeptics thought Massachusetts was rolling the dice when we legalized gaming — after all, this had been a state long wary of casinos, and we were in a regional market some said was already saturated. As one of a team of legislators who worked with the Patrick administration to carefully formulate the new gaming law, I believe we’ve proved the doubters wrong. The bet has paid off quite well so far.
Three companies have already poured roughly $3.8 billion into building two casinos and one slots parlor, creating thousands of construction jobs over the past several years and many more permanent jobs now and in the future. In Springfield, MGM already has hired 3,000 people. The Plainridge slots parlor has another 500. And Encore Boston Harbor in Everett hopes to put 5,000 people to work if it gets the go-ahead to open its casino in June.
Still, when the Globe asked me to assess the Commonwealth’s nascent casino industry, I couldn’t help but think about how the most difficult challenges lie ahead.
The most pressing issue is Everett, where Wynn Resorts’ Encore building already lights the night sky, but the opening date is in doubt. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has yet to complete its investigation of the company’s sexual misconduct issues, in part because of Steve Wynn’s litigation filed in Nevada seeking to block the report’s release. The investigation is key to the final determination as to the company’s suitability to hold a license.
Some argue for rapid approval, since the company has already removed Wynn as CEO and several board members and senior executives were also forced out. However, the commission must make sure Encore and its parent company meet the suitability requirements, including the strictest sexual harassment standards possible.
The commission’s second most pressing challenge is what to do about the Southeastern Massachusetts, or “Region C,” license. When we wrote the original gaming bill, the outside experts we hired were clear that our market would be saturated if we allowed more than three resort-style casinos. When we established three regions to spread the economic benefits, it was understood the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe would be pursuing a casino under the federal gaming act and, if approved, would give Region C its one casino.
Congressmen Bill Keating and Joe Kennedy have recently refiled legislation to clear the way for the Mashpee tribe to build their Taunton facility. Now the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard has upped the ante, informing the commission they want to expand gaming onto mainland.
It’s not uncommon for gaming companies to chip away at a state’s original framework and try to add capacity. We would not be the first state to fall for such encroachments, only to see casinos fail due to an oversaturated market. That’s why the commission must stick with our carefully calibrated three-casino/single slots parlor model.
Attempts by companies like Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm’s Mass Gaming and Entertainment to push for a Region C commercial license make no sense given the still unsettled tribal business. The commission should resist the pressure. And the effort to have Plainridge Park expand beyond slots into live table games should be rejected as well, as should attempts by Worcester County private interests to have the Legislature create a new casino region for that area.
The commission’s final challenge is sports betting, which the governor and others are seeking to bring to the state as quickly as possible, given that eight states are already open for business. Under the governor’s bill, the Gaming Commission would be the regulator — a smart move, since the group has the infrastructure and expertise to get us to market quickly.
Nonetheless, establishing this market will have its complications. The Baker bill has an interesting twist: It would allow companies like DraftKings and others to take sports bets without being affiliated with a casino. That means a wagering market conducted entirely online, a groundbreaking approach that demands new safeguards and standards to avoid corruption and cheating.
Baker’s intriguing initiative, which I support, could spur innovative approaches and perhaps even expand revenues. But online wagering could also siphon money from the brick-and-mortar casinos, killing the jobs and revenues we worked so hard to create. The Legislature and the commission will have to strike the right balance. At the very least, legalizing online sports betting should prompt us to finally let the lottery go online.
Finally, the governor’s proposal forbids college sports betting, which industry analysts say accounts for as much as 40 percent of all sports wagering. If we expect the commission to be able to safeguard betting on the pros, why can’t we give them leeway to find a way to protect college wagering? We could even earmark those tax revenues for our public higher education system, which is in dire need of a funding boost.
So far, the Gaming Commission gets high marks for creating an industry already producing jobs and a strong revenue stream. Now they must get Everett off the ground, prudently handle Region C, and launch sports betting, so we can turn today’s steady flow into tomorrow’s surging current. That’s a bet I’ll take.
Former state Senate president Stan Rosenberg was a key architect of the state’s 2011 legalized gaming law.