Second Thoughts on the Incredibly Slow Process in Massachusetts

It has been two years since the enabling casino gaming legislation passed in Massachusetts and nothing has happened.  That is not exactly accurate as lots has happened, but no casinos have been built. In fact none have been licensed.  The enabling legislation requires community approval, a two-step process, before a casino can be built.  A casino company wishing to bid for a license must first negotiate an agreement with the community for the type of project and community requirements and then the project must be approved by a vote of the people. Two communities have voted to accept a casino and three have voted to accept a racino while four communities have rejected casinos.

The rejections are confusing. The original legislation was very popular and even recent polls show that the citizens of Massachusetts overwhelmingly support casinos in the state.  They support casinos with one apparent caveat, any place but my place – or to use the common phrase – not in my backyard!

 Town residents on Tuesday strongly rejected a proposal to build a $1 billion resort casino, further cutting into the field of potential candidates in the hunt for the state’s first regional resort casino licenses… The result was the latest setback for backers of large-scale casinos, coming on the heels of votes earlier this month against Mohegan Sun in Palmer and Suffolk Downs in East Boston…In June, voters in Everett overwhelmingly approved a plan by Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn to build a resort casino along the Mystic River. In July, Springfield voters backed MGM Resort International’s proposal for a downtown casino that could compete for the sole western license. Voters in Plainville, Raynham and Leominster backed proposals for smaller gambling facilities known as slots parlors.  But the tide appeared to turn against the larger casino developers in recent months. In September, voters in West Springfield said no to a proposal from Hard Rock at the Eastern States Exhibition. Bob Salsberg, Associated Press, 11-20-13

While an overwhelming majority of Massachusetts residents appear to support the legalization of casino gaming in the commonwealth, many of those same people oppose having a casino come to their town or city.  That was the conclusion of the latest poll conducted on the topic by the Western New England University Polling Institute, which surveyed 517 adults between Nov. 5 and Nov. 11. The poll concluded that 61 percent of adults in Massachusetts now support casino gaming in the state, compared to 58 percent in 2010 and 56 percent in 2009. Only 42 percent of those surveyed said they would support a casino in their own community while 55 percent said that while casinos are fine in their view, they don’t want to live near one. Robert Rizzuto, Massachusetts Republican, 11-20-13

For the communities that approved a casino project, the next steps, as required by the legislation, are left to the gaming commission. There are a limited number of licenses – three casino licenses and one racino.  The commission will award one casino license for each of the three regions defined in the law and one racino license will be granted for the state.  No licenses have been granted, but Caesars withdrew its application after being given to understand that the commission had serious issues with the company.

The commission has also expressed doubt over the two Connecticut Indian gaming companies, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.  Although both lost in the polls, the commission’s position is disconcerting; if three of the industry’s biggest operators are unfit for a license in Massachusetts, just who is acceptable?   And to further complicate the issue, the last three referendums also sent a very confusing message.  After the failure of Foxwoods to get approval for its billion dollar project in Milford, many observers are wondering if a casino will ever be built in Massachusetts.  And even if one is built, how much longer will this process drag on?

The process of developing casino gaming in Massachusetts is probably the strangest one ever. But maybe strange is not quite the right word; I am sure that Stephen Crosby, chairman of the state gaming commission and Deval Patrick, the state’s governor, would prefer other terms, something such as cautious, correct, uncorrupted and incorruptible.  Gary Loveman, Steve Wynn and many others have been very vocal about how things have played out so far in Massachusetts.  They think the process is too costly, lengthy and the casinos may be over-regulated.  Up to this point, that has been my opinion as well.  I have compared Massachusetts to other jurisdictions and found Massachusetts wanting and unnecessarily expensive and lengthy.

I am, however, changing my mind.  Two interviews moved me to rethink the subject. One interview was with the governor and the other with the chairman of the gaming commission.

Following the rejection Tuesday of a proposed Foxwoods casino by Milford voters, Gov. Deval Patrick said he does not have second thoughts about the expanded gaming law that turns two years old on Friday.  With a few cities still competing for casino licenses amid dwindling competition, Patrick repeated that casinos are not central to his economic development agenda.  “No, I don’t think the law should be repealed. I think it’s working exactly as it’s supposed to, which is to authorize up to three destination resort licenses and one racino and to let local communities make decisions about whether they wanted the facilities in their own communities,” Patrick told reporters.  “I think this is something we can do well if we do it the right way. I think the framework of the legislation is the right framework,” Patrick said.  Matt Murphy, Lowell Sun, 11-20-13

Stephen Crosby is perhaps the scariest gaming regulator in America in the scariest state to open a casino. “We knew this would be a tough process,” said Crosby, chairman of our inaugural state gaming commission, over breakfast recently.  Three bidders for the sole slots license have moved to the next round, but with the deadline six weeks away, none of the applicants for the two resort casino licenses has yet submitted a final proposal.  To the casino industry, Massachusetts has been a nightmare… Is Crosby worried the commission may have overplayed its hand and the state will end up with no casinos?  “We are fully expecting at least one quality applicant for each license,” he said.  And in the extraordinary event that a region doesn’t receive a final proposal? Crosby shrugs off the possibility. “We just would do it over again. There are plenty of people who want to do this.”  See what I mean by scary?…Crosby has been good at his job, perhaps too good. It’s not what the gaming industry wants, but it’s what Massachusetts needs as we warily wade into casinos. Shirley Leung, Boston Globe, 11-20-13

Crosby and Deval recognize the process is long and arduous for the casino companies.  But neither apologizes and both think they have a moral, legal, social and fiscal responsibility to the state of Massachusetts and its citizens.  They argue that Massachusetts is not Nevada, New Jersey or any other state.  And to insure the integrity of casinos in Massachusetts and to protect every community from unwanted casinos, a slow, cautious and careful process is necessary.  I will probably have changed my mind by next week, but for the moment, I think they are right.  Because Massachusetts is not taking the same path as other states that does not make Massachusetts automatically wrong, does it?  We might all be better off with very responsible, cautious and trustworthy public figures who are not corrupted or pushed into impulsive public policy by money –whether that money be destined for the public coffers or the officials’ pocket.  I have complained often enough about public officials who do things for the wrong reasons, it is time I praise the others: Good job Chairman Crosby and Governor Deval!


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