Jennifer Levesque illustration
Last month, Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that a proposed 2014 ballot question that sought to make casinos illegal in Massachusetts was unconstitutional. But proponents of the question were not about to take no for an answer.
The ballot initiative was the work of Repeal the Casino Deal, a statewide coalition of activists who want to overturn the 2011 legislation that authorized three casinos and one slots parlor in the commonwealth. While that legislation grants residents of communities where casinos are proposed the right to vote on the matter, the controversial casino question has never come up for a statewide vote—a serious omission, say casino opponents, who note that the effects of expanded gambling will be felt by all Massachusetts residents, businesses and property owners.
“This impacts everyone, bar none,” said Kathleen Conley Norbut, a Monson resident and leader in the anti-casino movement. “This is not a local or even a regional decision—it impacts the entire culture of the commonwealth.”
The question was submitted to the AG’s office for approval this summer. But in a Sept. 4 letter to the proponents, Coakley wrote that the question could not move forward, saying it would amount to an unconstitutional taking of the private property rights of would-be casino developers.
Repeal the Casino Deal responded quickly, filing for an injunction against the AG’s decision from the Supreme Judicial Court. Coakley agreed to the injunction, which allows the ballot question campaign to proceed while the challenge awaits a hearing before the court. The casino opponents—like the groups behind 27 other questions proposed for the 2014 ballot—now face the daunting task of submitting 68,911 petition signatures to the Secretary of State by Dec. 4. If they meet that threshold, the SJC will rule on the matter; if not, the court case will be moot.
Conley Norbut is optimistic about the signature drive. “We have an army set up,” she said, with volunteers coordinating signature collections across the state as well as a social media campaign (including a Repeal the Casino Deal Facebook page and website).
“If anyone cares about democracy, they will sign this petition, they will help us get signatures so we can have a statewide vote,” Conley Norbut said.
Repeal the Casino Deal has a long list of concerns about what casinos would do to Massachusetts, from the environmental effects to the social problems caused by gambling addiction to the stress casinos would place on the public infrastructure. “Las Vegas was built in a desert for a reason,” Conley Norbut said—not in established New England communities with already strained colonial-era traffic routes.
Another key difference, Conley Norbut noted: Vegas was designed as a destination that would bring visitors in from around the world; the kinds of casinos proposed in Massachusetts won’t draw tourists from far-flung places, especially as more and more nearby states adopt their own gambling legislation, saturating the region with casinos.
“People are not flying from Bangkok to Palmer to gamble, and people are not flying from Paris to Springfield to go to a casino,” she said. “The current model is really about local low-rollers,” who will spend their disposable income at the slots and tables—and shops and restaurants maintained on-site by the casinos—rather than at local businesses.
And when local businesses lose income, Conley Norbut continued, that results in less tax revenue for municipalities and the state. Likewise, she said, government and property owners alike will lose if a nearby casino drives down property values. Earlier this year, the Realtor Association of the Pioneer Valley released a study, prepared by the National Association of Realtors, that described the effect of casinos on the housing market as “unambiguously negative,” reducing home values in the host community by 1.1 to 2.3 percent.
Making it all worse, Conley Norbut said, is the government’s direct role in all this, starting with the governor and legislative leaders who pushed the law through, creating a monopoly situation for a small handful of giant casino companies. “The state moves from being the protector of the people—consumers, small businesses—and a regulator, to a partner of the gambling industry,” she said. And the host community agreements negotiated between casino developers and the cities and towns where they want to build “make the municipality a partner that is compelled to promote and promulgate the casino, even if it’s in the worst interest of its citizens and other [government] departments,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Mass. Gaming Commission, which is expected to award the casino licenses next year, also acts as an enabler of the casino industry, Conley Norbut said. “The mission of the Gaming Commission is not to regulate, not to oversee, not to be a watchdog—we have none of that in Massachusetts,” she said. Rather, the board has been charged with implementing the legislation allowing casinos in the state: “That means they’ve a vested interest in having the casinos open, regardless of the taxpayers, citizens, residents, communities that are sacrificed.”
Casino developers point to the number of jobs their projects would create, an incentive that’s compelling in places with high unemployment rates such as Springfield, which approved a host community agreement with MGM in July. Those jobs would include both permanent casino positions and short-term construction jobs, which have won over many in organized labor.
But casino opponents question the number and quality of the jobs promised, and argue that the most significant flow of money will be from low-income gamblers to casino executives and the lobbyists and lawyers on their payrolls.
“It is the most abysmal shift of wealth from lower-income and working poor people to the wealthy that we have seen,” Conley Norbut said.
Repeal the Casino Deal’s campaign is an attempt to give voters a voice in the casino debate, “to be able to vote on something that impacts all of us culturally, financially, politically,” Conley Norbut said.
The group is heartened by the results of some recent local gambling-related votes: last month, West Springfield voters rejected Hard Rock’s casino plan at the site of the Big E, and in August, at a special Town Meeting, Tewksbury voters shot down a proposed slots parlor in their town. Even the results of Springfield’s casino vote indicated strong opposition; while MGM won the day, 42 percent of voters cast ballots against it—this despite the millions the casino company spent on PR efforts, compared to the couple of thousand spent by opponents, and despite what Conley Norbut described as the decidedly pro-casino bias in the Springfield Republican and other mainstream media.
“Average, intelligent people did their research, and they came up with the rational answer,” Conley Norbut said. She believes the same will happen with the 2014 statewide ballot question—if, that is, it reaches the ballot.
“This is a very real, tangible movement by regular people, taxpayers and citizens, to have a voice in their own government,” Conley Norbut said. “That’s exactly what this petition is about: we want our voice at the ballot, not politicians that have campaign contributions, that have connections with a powerful industry. This is about whether or not not just Massachusetts, but the United States, is still a democracy. It’s really nothing short of that.”•