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Massachusetts Casino Licensing Pace Gives Gambling Opponents A Window

The effort to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts,which began almost two-and-a-half years ago, has hit some speed bumps along the way.  Gambling opponents believe they still have a chance to shut down the fledgling industry in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission in late February finally awarded the state’s first casino license.  It was for a slots machine- only casino at a harness racetrack near the Rhode Island border. The commission appears poised to act next month to award the first license for a full-fledged resort style casino to MGM in Springfield.  But the license reserved for eastern Massachusetts – potentially the most lucrative gambling market in the state -- is mired in controversy.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is asserting the city should be considered a host community for casinos proposed in neighboring communities.  Boston could end up filing a lawsuit if the gaming industry regulators turn down its bid for host community status.  The dispute is expected to delay until summer and perhaps beyond the decision to award a casino license to either Mohegan Sun in Revere or Wynn Resorts in Everett.

In another potential setback, Massachusetts environmental regulators have ordered Mohegan Sun to do a new impact study on its $1 billion project.

Still, Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said he is happy with the way the licensing process has played out.

" Its that thing about watching democracy being done or sausage made. It has its moments but it absolutely  is a good process."

Crosby said even though MGM has emerged as the only applicant for the western Massachusetts license it has a very strong proposal.

" The likelihood is pretty good that we would make this award. But, we have the ability to negotiate any of the points, traffic mitigation for example. We can put conditions on the license. We might put conditions the bidder would not accept, so anything can happen."

 Massachusetts has taken longer than any other state to award casino licenses after lawmakers authorized expanded gaming. The lack of tangible benefits from casinos – the jobs and revenue -- could explain why a poll last month found support for casinos has slipped, according to political analyst Tony Cignoli.

"  There is an anger by the electorate toward government that this has taken so long to get done. The legislature finally got the job done and the thought was it would not take this long for the gaming commission to move."

Ted Steger, an anti-casino activist from Longmeadow said momentum is building for a referendum on the November election ballot to repeal the casino law.     

" The more people learn about casinos the less they like them."

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments next month on whether the repeal question can appear on the ballot.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, a strong supporter of MGM’s casino project,  joined with nine other registered city voters to urge the court to reject the ballot question.   

" Sure I am going to fight for this. This ( the MGM casino) is good for Springfield, for western Massachusetts and the Commonwealth."

Several casino companies, including MGM, have also filed court briefs that argue against giving voters a chance to repeal the casino law.       

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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