The fate of casino gambling in Massachusetts may hinge on a case before the state's highest court Monday.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is set to hear arguments in a case centered on whether a question should be allowed on the November ballot asking voters if they want the state's 2011 casino law repealed. The court is expected to issue a decision by July.
If allowed on the ballot, the referendum could upend the state's ongoing casino licensing process.
Gambling giants MGM, Wynn, Mohegan Sun and others have expressed concern they could lose millions of dollars they've invested in the planning, development and promotion of their proposals if the referendum prevails. They also argue the state risks losing much more.
"Jobs certainty and billions of dollars in economic development hang in the balance," said Carole Brennan, a spokeswoman for MGM, which has proposed an $800 million casino project in downtown Springfield. "The Gaming Act allows for the creation of more than 10,000 jobs and the recapture of billions of dollars in tax revenues that are currently leaving the state. It doesn't make sense to forgo those opportunities."
Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat running for governor this year, has ruled that the question violates the state constitution and shouldn't be allowed on the ballot.
Specifically, Coakley's office argues that the question could cause casino developers to lose property without being compensated for it, which referendums are not permitted to do under Massachusetts law. Casino and slot parlor developers, it argues, have "an implied contractual right" to see the application process play out since they have collectively spent about $4.4 million in state fees and $4.2 million more in related costs.
The Repeal the Casino Deal anti-casino group that petitioned for the referendum countered that, saying the state and its residents have the right to revisit and revise laws impacting "public morals and welfare" at any time.
"It's not like we're shut out forever if we lose the case," said John Ribeiro, a Winthrop resident who chairs the group. "No state can contract away its rights to police itself. ... The Legislature could make casino gambling illegal tomorrow if it so chooses. ... The people have the same power through the petition process."
Groups on both sides of the casino debate have weighed in on the case.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and other city residents say in legal documents that a statewide referendum would encroach on a decision already made by city voters last year. Springfield residents approved an agreement with MGM that calls for the company to pay more than $15 million in upfront payments, followed by annual payments of more than $25 million to the city once the casino opens.
Local chambers of commerce and other business groups argued that a "sudden about-face" on the casino issue would have a "negative, ripple effect" on the state's business climate.
Groups ranging from the Washington, D.C.-based Stop Predatory Gambling to a coalition of local faith-based organizations, meanwhile, have expressed their support for the referendum. They have filed documents with the court that say voters should not be denied the opportunity to weigh in on an industry that could have "grave implications" for residents, communities and public health.
Ribeiro acknowledges the repeal effort has a long way to go, even if the court ultimately allows the referendum on the ballot. Supporters of the referendum would likely need a costly public relations campaign to fight deep-pocketed casino operators and their supporters in the months leading up to the November election. As of Dec. 31, the anti-casino group had just $7,700 in its campaign coffers, after raising $175,476 and spending $167,709 in 2013.
Ribeiro said advocates are optimistic, however, that public opinion is shifting in their favor.
A WBUR poll in March found that 46 percent supported casino gambling while 43 percent were opposed. That's a change from January, when a separate WBUR poll found 53 percent in favor and 39 percent opposed.
"We're not going away. We know that much," Ribeiro said. "There's not anybody involved in this that's prepared to throw their hands up."