JoANN FITZPATRICK: State may lose double or nothing bet on gambling
By Joann Fitzpatrick
Posted Dec 21, 2013
Joann Fitzpatrick was an editorial writer at the Ledger for 20 years before she retired in 2006. Before that she worked for the Associated Press in Boston, and Reuters and UPI in Washington. She was also a legislative assistant to the Massachusetts welfare commissioner and public affairs director for the state Department of Mental Health. A graduate of Boston University, Fitzpatrick holds a master's degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Read more of her columns. E-mail her. Leave a comment at the end of the column or CLICK to write a letter to the editor.
Only a foolhardy gambler believed bringing casinos to Massachusetts could be done in a conscientious, deliberative way that would make even doubters ready to play. In the gambling business conscientious means protecting the house – the sure winner – not the consumer or the community. This is a world of bullies and fast talkers who will do anything to separate the hopeful from their money, and the state’s elaborate “process” has showcased gaming at its worst.
Sadly, the state gaming commission established to sort through developers’ offers and approve three casinos and a slots parlor in the state is willing at the eleventh hour to change the rules to allow the big boys to play. That’s in East Boston, where voters said No to casinos but Suffolk Downs racetrack owners quickly switched to a separate parcel across the line in Revere, with a new partner. The commission has allowed a new vote in Revere.
The good news is that casinos are now getting the public’s attention in a way they did not when the Legislature in 2011 caved in and decided legalized gambling beyond the state-run lottery was a good idea. Voters in Milford and Palmer also voted No to casinos this fall while those in Revere, Everett and Springfield said Yes.
East Boston was the biggest surprise: Suffolk Downs racetrack owners were confident voters would buy the argument that casino jobs were worth snarling their roads and making their neighborhood a home for the other negatives that unfailingly accompany gambling operations. Then, a week before the vote, Caesars Entertainment, the Suffolk Downs partner, withdrew after gaming commission investigators found the renowned Caesars had possible ties to Russian organized crime.
Crime and casinos together – the commission apparently was shocked.
The tidy process legislators had in mind has turned into a Vegas-style roller coaster ride in recent weeks.
After Suffolk Downs was allowed to switch gears, to the dismay of those who thought their votes actually counted, the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe said it had received federal authority to operate a casino on Martha’s Vineyard. That sent the state’s lawyers scrambling, because Gov. Deval Patrick had already entered into a pact with another tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoags, for a casino in Taunton. That casino has won legislative approval as well. The gaming law calls for one casino in eastern Massachusetts, one in the western part of the state and one in the southeast. But the Wampanoag agreement leaves open the question of whether another casino could be sited in southeastern Massachusetts.
As if events were not confusing enough, last week Caesars sued Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby, alleging its rights were violated during the approval process. And questions have been raised about Crosby’s long-ago ties to a man who owns land on which a casino in Everett would be located.
Isn’t this fun?
No, it isn’t. It’s pathetic.
But the game’s not over. Massachusetts voters may yet have a say in whether casinos ever get off the drawing board because enough signatures were collected to put a referendum question on next November’s ballot to repeal the law altogether. The courts have yet to rule on whether the question would be constitutional.
Only one operator – MGM Enterprises – remains in the contest for a western Massachusetts operation. This is the only proposal that is compelling. It would be located in downtown Springfield, a city desperately in need of economic revival.
Back east, Mohegan Sun, Suffolk Downs’ news partner, is lined up against Wynn, another mega-player in the gambling world, which has passed the first suitability test to run a casino in Everett.
While state investigators were traipsing the world collecting information on casino operations and towns were showing their distaste, existing casinos outside Las Vegas - in Atlantic City and at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in Connecticut, for example – continue to lose money. Yet others are getting into the game: New York has approved four casinos north of New York City that would compete for bettors if the Springfield casino were built and New Hampshire is eyeing casino gambling in response to venues in Massachusetts.
Everyone wants a piece of a shrinking pie while Internet gambling looms. Who wants to drive to a casino when you can gamble in your pajamas at home?
What some thought were the best-laid plans should now give everyone pause. Massachusetts does not need casinos. The expected financial gains to the state are questionable and the long-term, not so lucrative jobs created won’t allow a family to live well in a state where housing costs are among the nation’s highest.
JoAnn Fitzpatrick may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.