Deval Patrick was clear-eyed on what should happen to the state’s third casino license: No one should get it.
He told me so, and I got a whole column out of it last December. The reason: When Beacon Hill crafted the gambling law, it was the Legislature’s intention that the state would have up to three resort casinos.
With two licenses spoken for, in Springfield and in Everett, Patrick believed that the state should hold off on a decision for the Southeastern Massachusetts license, until we knew the outcome of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s efforts to build a casino in that area. The tribe doesn’t need state permission, so it didn’t make sense to Patrick to risk the possibility of having two gambling palaces so close to each other.
“I think the Gaming Commission has to make the call on this,” Baker said. “Frankly, I think there should be a third-party independent entity that processes all this information and makes the call.”
Yes, our governor is once again deftly staying neutral on a controversial topic. But with all due respect, governor, this isn’t the Olympics.
Not that the state Gaming Commission isn’t capable, but this one decision is too big to leave up to a five-member body whose focus is to nurture our nascent casino market. What’s at stake is the future of legalized gambling in Massachusetts. Build too many gambling palaces, and the market may fall like a house of cards.
In my mind, the governor is the independent voice on this, and from what I can tell his opinion will be much needed. Because, as with all things casino in Massachusetts, it’s complicated.
Here’s why: The Patrick administration inked a pact with the tribe in 2013. It says that if the state gives the Wampanoag exclusive rights to the southeast region, the tribe would agree to pay a 17 percent tax on its gambling revenue. Otherwise, the tribe wouldn’t have to pay a dime to the state because its casino would be on federal land.
The pact is still in effect, but it was struck with the executive office. The Gaming Commission sees its job as deciding whether to hand out the final commercial license or not. It can’t just cut a deal with the tribe. But its action would trigger the terms of the pact.
Talk to the Wampanoag and their representatives, and they have a different interpretation of the agreement. Once the tribe has land in trust — which the federal government approved Friday — the state cannot proceed with the third license.
“There is no discretion, as we see it, available to the Gaming Commission to issue another license. We don’t anticipate that they will,” said the tribe’s lobbyist, Bill Delahunt, the former congressman from Quincy.
Talk to the commission, and it’s not so cut and dry. It wouldn’t elaborate, saying only the legal ramifications of the pact will be discussed at the Thursday hearing on the license for the southeast region.
Even with the land in trust, the Wampanoag face other legal challenges related to their right to the land and whether they can proceed with a $500 million tribal facility. Then there are the garden-variety lawsuits that always arise when you try to build a casino in someone’s backyard.
But Arlinda Locklear, the tribe’s lawyer, is confident.
“Obviously people can — and often times in this country do — file frivolous lawsuits,” Locklear said. “We can’t say that there won’t be one filed against this decision, but what we can say is that even if such lawsuits are filed, the odds are very slim to virtually nonexistent as to them being able to stop the development from going forward.”
Now Baker did say something that could shape what happens to the southeast region. “I believe the market will ultimately decide what works and what doesn’t here,” he said.
If that is the case, the market is sending some signals. Only one contender is left in the race for the final license, and George Carney and Neil Bluhm still fervently believe the southeast region can support two casinos. They realize their commercial casino would be at a disadvantage because the tribe wouldn’t have to pay taxes or the $85 million licensing fee. This matters because this means the Indian casino can invest more money in its facility and give bigger payouts to customers.
But Carney and Bluhm, who are proposing a $650 million casino in Brockton, have run the numbers. Their casino can bring in about $400 million in annual gaming revenue without a tribal competitor and $330 million with one. In their eyes, that’s a bet worth making.
Candidate Baker was clear on how he felt about legalized gambling. He liked the idea of one casino — and let’s see how it goes. In particular, he was fond of Springfield getting its chance at slots and blackjack to reverse its fortunes.
Governor Baker wants nothing to do with casinos, but I’m not sure how long he can stay out of the game.