THROUGH THE looking glass of Massachusetts politics, yes means no, and casino gambling means sustainable economic development. If voters can disentangle the first contradiction, though, at least they can get rid of the second: Voting yes on ballot Question 3 would mean no casino gambling in Massachusetts, repealing the state’s 2011 casino law. That law, passed in a moment of economic desperation, was a mistake for the Commonwealth. Voters don’t have to believe that gambling is immoral, or that all casinos are inherently evil, to conclude that this law will do more harm than good.
Large casinos come at a sometimes steep cost to communities, and until 2011 those impacts were sufficient to keep Beacon Hill from inviting them into Massachusetts. There are the relatively minor concerns, like noise and traffic, and much more significant ones, like increased gambling addiction, crime, and the impact on local businesses, which sometimes can’t compete on an even playing field with casinos operating under laxer rules. Gambling is also an industry with a rich heritage of corruption; inviting it into Massachusetts always meant accepting that risk. There is, finally, a danger in state government becoming too reliant on gambling revenues. Once the state is counting on successful casinos to pay its bills, the pressure to promote them will rise; its incentive to regulate them will wane.
The Great Recession made those trade-offs appear palatable to enough legislators to overcome the state’s long-standing reluctance. The law passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Patrick authorized up to three casinos, each in a different part of the state, and one slot parlor. To lawmakers’ credit, the law fully recognized that casinos would cause problems and spelled out extensive requirements to mitigate them, including payments to affected communities. But these provisions weren’t the main selling point; the promise of jobs and more state revenue was. If the casinos meet projections, they’ll generate thousands of construction and casino jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the Commonwealth.
The law, though, was flawed in its basic wiring. Four facilities — and possibly a fifth, depending on whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe ever builds a tribal casino — are too many for Massachusetts. The Northeast gambling market is already becoming oversaturated, as the recent collapse of the Atlantic City casino market has shown. That increases the likelihood that one or more of the Massachusetts facilities will struggle and eventually come back to Beacon Hill seeking relief from some of the law’s requirements. The law didn’t steer the casinos into isolated locations, like the tribal casinos in Connecticut, where their impact on surrounding communities and businesses would be more limited. Bizarrely, the Legislature also gave up a hefty chunk of the state’s proceeds to subsidize the horse-racing industry; if the state is going to enter partnerships with gambling companies, all proceeds should at least support true public needs.
The evidence of the last three years only seems to confirm most of the fears of critics of the Massachusetts casino law, while exposing some new ones. One of the casinos, planned for Everett, will likely have a dramatic traffic impact on Sullivan Square. Both the casinos approved so far are in struggling cities with a long history of municipal corruption and mismanagement. As expected, casino transactions have also proven to be a kind of flypaper for low-lifes, as the recent indictments of the Everett landowners show. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the newly created body that vetted the casino license applicants, has done a decent enough job within the confines of the law. Yet every tough decision seems to have gone the industry’s way, including the dubious one to allow the Suffolk Downs racetrack to continue seeking a license even after East Boston voters rejected a plan there. The industry’s winning streak before the commission isn’t a promising sign for the future of Massachusetts casino regulation.