ON ITS FACE, Question 1 on the ballot in November asks a seemingly straightforward question: Should state regulators get the power to allow a second slots parlor in Massachusetts?
The language might lead some voters to believe that passage of Question 1 would open another statewide competition for a license, since that’s how the state Gaming Commission awarded the first slots parlor license, in Plainville, in 2014. That competitive process allowed multiple operators to submit applications and ensured the state got the proposal that commissioners believed best balanced tax revenue, job creation, and neighborhood concerns.
But Question 1 is different. It is not an expansion of the existing state gambling system. It’s an attempt by a private developer to finagle a regulatory windfall just for himself.
If passed, the referendum would amount to a special favor for a single developer in Revere. Because of the fine print in the proposal — it only allows the commission to consider applicants immediately adjacent to racetracks, and with property footprints of more than four acres — the question basically limits a possible slots parlor to the trailer park wedged between Route 1A and Suffolk Downs.
Guess who owns or has options to buy that land? Yes, it’s Eugene McCain — the businessman backing Question 1.
The Globe urges a “no” vote on Question 1, because it’s thoroughly unfair. Unfair to Revere to have their city’s economic plans bypassed; unfair to other gambling companies that would have no practical possibility of competing for the second license; and unfair to the residents of the trailer park, whose landlord would suddenly get a golden inducement from the state to kick them out of their homes.
Question 1’s odd history started in 2014, when the Gaming Commission rejected a proposal to build one of the state’s new casinos at Suffolk Downs. That decision bitterly disappointed many Revere residents; the city even sued the Gaming Commission over the rejection.
McCain, a hitherto unknown businessman from Thailand, popped onto the scene in 2015, buying or making arrangements to buy the trailer park and other parcels near the racetrack. City officials initially thought he wanted to build a hotel before his plans became known.
Within Revere, McCain seems to be piggybacking on the leftover goodwill from the casino plan — even though Suffolk Downs is not involved in the slots proposal. And as city officials have cautioned, a slots parlor has much less to offer the city than a resort casino.
“This proposal, these proponents, are not even in the same universe” as the casino, said Revere mayor Brian Arrigo, who opposes McCain’s plan after supporting the Suffolk Downs casino. If Question 1 is successful, Arrigo says, it will create a distraction for a city trying to move forward with its economic development plans.
“This is not being about pro- or antigaming,” he said. “We need to not rely on lazy, fly-by-night operations like the one proposing and pushing this ballot initiative.”
That’s not just the mayor’s view: On Tuesday, Revere voters rejected the plan by a 2-to-1 margin in a nonbinding referendum.
If Question 1 passes, though, the impact would go well beyond Revere. It risks oversaturating the regional gambling market, which could have a negative impact on the state’s other licensees. If they struggle, so do the state’s tax receipts.
There’s also precedent to consider. The Gaming Commission hasn’t taken a stand on the ballot question. But if Question 1 passes, it would raise questions about the viability of all of the state’s gambling regulations. If a developer can simply circumvent the commission this November, what’s to stop the next casino company that wants to get around the safeguards and limits built into the law — the very safeguards casino supporters touted in defending it? If the Gaming Commission chooses not to award the license, will the inevitable next ballot question simply order them to? It’s easy to imagine how passage of the question would embolden others to seek to chip away at the law’s protections.
Finally, there’s a major difference between McCain and the state’s other casino developers. Suffolk Downs’ plan involved revamping a struggling racetrack. Steve Wynn is building his casino on what was vacant industrial land in Everett. A rejected proposal in Brockton would have been built at a little-used fairgrounds.
None of them involved bulldozing a neighborhood, the way McCain’s does. Lee’s Trailer Park may not be the most desirable address, but it’s still a home to around 90 families. As far as city officials can tell, McCain has not produced a plan to help them if they are displaced.
Throwing people out of their homes, especially when they may not have many other housing options, should not be done lightly. At the least, the state shouldn’t make it an irresistible option by giving the owner the green light for a slots parlor that must be on that exact site.
Trailer parks can close, just like any other rental property. But ask yourself this: If the entire electorate got to decide whether the state should give your landlord a giant payout that was contingent on evicting you first, how would you want them to vote?