The high court in Massachusetts ruled Tuesday that a petition to effectively ban casinos will go to a vote in November, potentially erasing plans for destination resorts in Springfield and Greater Boston.
At the least, the decision delays the start of construction on the $800 million MGM Resorts International casino in Springfield by five months or more. If voters repeal the law, it could upend the project and other proposals for casinos in Greater Boston and in southeastern Massachusetts. The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority is vying for the Greater Boston license, as is Wynn Resorts.
A repeal, however, would mean fewer gambling outlets popping up in the Northeast and sapping slot revenue from both Connecticut casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino.
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Petitioners gathered more than the required 68,911 signatures last fall to put the issue on the ballot, but Attorney General Martha Coakley declined to certify the petition. She said that it was unconstitutional because it resulted in the taking of property in the form of contract rights.
The Supreme Judicial Court, in its decision , wrote, "We conclude that the Attorney General erred in declining to certify, and grant the requested relief so that the initiative may be decided by the voters at the November election."
The repeal effort gained supporters throughout the state as a confederacy of small anti-gambling groups fought and won municipal elections, defeating casino proposals in West Springfield, East Boston, Palmer and Milford.
A group called Repeal the Casino Deal sprung up after legislation allowing casinos was passed in 2011. Its statewide campaign manager, Darek Barcikowski, said Tuesday that the group had gathered about 90,000 signatures last fall and an additional batch of nearly 27,000 signatures this spring, as required.
"The casino issue started playing out in people's own backyards," Barcikowski said. "When the law was passed, people were inclined to think this was a good idea in theory."
Barcikowski said he was confident that voters will repeal the legislation. A repeal would end the yearslong vetting process that involved glitzy campaigns by casino operators to woo the public with promises of economic development and entertaining revitalization of beleaguered towns and cities.
"We will not be able to compete with multimillion-dollar media buys [for advertising], but I think the casinos will not be able to compete with our ground game," Barcikowski said. "Some of these other local votes have shown that the sentiment is on our side, and we will bring our message to the neighborhoods and ultimately win in November."
Casino supporters will be rallying, too.
"The keys to knocking down poverty and public safety issues in urban America are, #1 education and #1A jobs, people are hungry to work," Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said in a statement Tuesday. "MGM Springfield is a massive jobs generation project. It also means $50 million in local vendor procurement opportunities and the redevelopment of the downtown area heavily affected by the June 1, 2011 tornado."
MGM Springfield President Michael Mathis said that his company spent three years collaborating with and talking to people in western Massachusetts about the value of a casino resort as a catalyst for economic development.
"We are confident that our urban revitalization project in Springfield, one of the Commonwealth's most prominent Gateway Cities, is something to which all Massachusetts voters can relate," Mathis said in a statement. "It is a comeback story in progress with hard-working people eager to grow jobs and get back to work. 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 the Commonwealth in a repeal."
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission chose MGM Springfield for the western Massachusetts license on June 13 but granted a request to delay construction until after the referendum issue was resolved. That way, MGM could avoid paying millions of dollars in fees and construction obligations triggered by the state's license award until after the repeal was resolved.
The commission is proceeding with its review of two casino plans for Greater Boston, from Mohegan Sun and Wynn. It is scheduled to designate a winner in September.
Mohegan Sun said in a statement: "We believe we have the best plan to bring thousands of jobs, world class entertainment, local economic development, and increased tourism to the region and that is our focus right now. We will also join the chorus of others making the case to voters on why this law is good for workers, good for the economy, and good for the Commonwealth."
Wynn Resorts declined to comment.
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At the heart of the legal debate over the referendum effort was the concept of contract rights versus the state's right to "police power," meaning the ability to regulate activities such as gambling.