BOSTON — The casino industry and its opponents geared up Tuesday for a high stakes campaign in Massachusetts after the state’s highest court cleared the way for a question seeking repeal of the state’s casino gambling law to go on the November state ballot.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling overturned Attorney General Martha Coakley’s finding that the question should be barred from the ballot because it could amount to an unconstitutional taking of property.
The justices, in a unanimous decision, disagreed, noting that changes in gambling laws are among the “foreseeable risks” that casino developers and their investors take when they apply for licenses.
The ruling sets the stage for a pricey war of words pitting the deep-pocketed industry against repeal activists who say casinos increase crime and traffic congestion while preying on gambling addicts, the poor and elderly.
“This is a chance for a do-over,” said Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general and lead adviser on the repeal effort. “The people have the right to vote and be heard.”
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The 2011 law allows for three regional resort casinos and one slots parlor. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has so far awarded a license to MGM Resorts International for an $800 million casino in Springfield, and to Penn National Gaming for a slots parlor at the Plainridge racetrack in Plainville.
The commission would continue the licensing process despite the “atmosphere of uncertainty” surrounding the repeal effort, commission chair Stephen Crosby said Tuesday. The panel’s next major decision, the issuance of a casino license for the greater Boston region, was expected in September.
Casino companies, arguing their developments are job creators and economic engines for communities that have welcomed the projects, pledged an all-out effort to convince voters to keep the law.
“We are fully prepared to extend this message to a larger audience through a statewide campaign to educate the voters on the enormous economic benefits that would be lost to the taxpayers of (Massachusetts) in a repeal,” said Michael Mathis, president of MGM Springfield.
Mohegan Sun similarly promised to make its case as to why the law should stand. The company has proposed a $1.3 billion casino in Revere and is competing for the eastern license with Wynn Resorts, which has offered a $1.6 billion proposal for Everett. Wynn declined comment.
Unlike contributions to political candidates, there are no donation limits to ballot question committees in Massachusetts. Additionally, corporations can make unlimited donations in support or opposition of ballot questions. That has the potential to unleash a flood of advertising money from casino operators and other supporters of the venues, including labor unions.
It was unclear Tuesday if developers planned to form an alliance to fight the repeal question, though a prominent trade organization, the American Gaming Association, promised to “ensure that voters have the facts about our industry instead of tired stereotypes.” The group said there was no precedent in the U.S. for voters to overturn a state casino law.
John Ribeiro, chairman of the group Repeal The Casino Deal, said opponents were prepared for a “David versus Goliath” fight in which they’ll likely be outspent “100 to 1,” as they were in many communities that held local votes on casino proposals.
Penn National, the only company to begin construction on a gambling facility, said it was disappointed by the court ruling but would continue “full steam ahead” on the project. MGM has not yet begun construction and will not be required to pay the state an $85 million licensing fee until the repeal issue is settled.
Coakley, a Democratic candidate for governor, said she accepted the court’s decision to dismiss her earlier ruling.
“This is a result that allows it to go on the ballot and I’m perfectly satisfied with that decision,” she told reporters, adding that she would personally vote to keep the law.
The ballot question is certain to be closely watched in neighboring states with casinos, including New York, which is accepting applications for four upstate casino licenses.
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie and Philip Marcelo contributed to this report.