Boston takes pounding from Gaming Commission

McHugh: What’s your end game?

Caption: Gaming Commission members from left: Bruce Stebbins, Enrique Zuniga, James McHugh, and Gayle Cameron

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Wednesday unanimously rejected a request from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to put the Greater Boston casino licensing process on hold until after voters decide in November whether or not to keep the state’s gaming law in place.

The city’s arguments took a pounding legally and factually, and its contention that voters would be harmed by knowing whether Everett or Revere will play host to the proposed casino was rejected by every commission member. The debate veered back and forth between legal and political arguments. One commissioner, former judge James McHugh, seemed so puzzled by the responses of city representatives that he asked them what their end game was.

Eugene O’Flaherty, the city’s corporation counsel, insisted any action by the commission on the Greater Boston casino license between now and November would affect how voters vote on the initiative petition.

McHugh saw nothing wrong with that. He said he thought voters would appreciate more information before voting, particularly on such issues as where the casino will be located and how much money the casino operator is willing to pay Boston to mitigate traffic and other impacts. Other commissioners agreed. “I just don’t see how more information is harmful to any voter in the Commonwealth,” said commissioner Gayle Cameron.

O’Flaherty said the city preferred the status quo, at one point suggesting that naming a casino license winner could possibly split the vote on the initiative petition in Boston. The city’s private counsel, Thomas Frongillo, was a bit more explicit. “They want you to issue a license to influence the result of the vote,” he told the commissioners.

Commissioner Bruce Stebbins said Ohio’s experience with casino ballot questions was instructive. He said gambling proponents had long pushed measures to legalize gambling and always came up empty when the specific location of the proposed casinos was left vague. He said attitudes changes in favor of gambling once locations were spelled out more clearly.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, after a State House event, said he was not happy about the commission’s ruling but said no decision had been made on whether to file a lawsuit or take other steps. He insisted he is not anti-casino, noting he voted for casinos as a state rep. O’Flaherty, who also previously served as a state rep, said he voted both for and against casinos on Beacon Hill.

The Gaming Commission met at Bunker Hill Community College, with only four of the five members in attendance. The fifth member, chairman Steven Crosby, has recused himself from Boston issues. All four voted against Boston’s request for a stay of the licensing process and they also granted Boston a little more time to negotiate surrounding community agreements with Wynn Enterprises (which wants to build a casino in Everett) and Mohegan Sun (which wants to build in Revere).

During the hearing, McHugh said he was puzzled by Boston’s attitude that it can unilaterally decide whether to comply with Gaming Commission regulations and rulings. In a June 26 letter to the commission, O’Flaherty wrote that, if the initiative petition is voted down in November, the city still hopes East Boston and Charlestown will be given the chance to vote on the proposed casinos. McHugh said that statement seemed to suggest Boston still considered itself a host community to the casinos even though the commission has determined Revere and Everett, not Boston, are the host communities. “That train has left the station,” McHugh said.

A second letter from O’Flaherty to the commission on June 30 suggested the city may refuse to negotiate surrounding community agreements with the casino developers. “So the city simply decided the regulations don’t apply anymore?” McHugh asked. “Maybe it doesn’t want these things [casinos] under any circumstances.”

O’Flaherty responded: “That’ speculation. That is not our position at this current moment.”

The city’s other argument in favor of a stay of the licensing process was that it made no sense to require Boston to spend money negotiating surrounding community agreements with Wynn and Mohegan Sun if voters are possibly going to ban casinos in November.

O’Flaherty said he couldn’t estimate the cost of negotiating surrounding community agreements with Mohegan Sun and Wynn, but said the cost would be substantial. He also cited a Suffolk University poll from early June indicating the opponents of casino gambling outnumber the supporters by a margin of 47-37 percent, indicating that the initiative petition is likely to pass.

But O’Flaherty neglected to mention that the two most recent polls – one released by the Boston Globe on June 20 and one released by WBUR on Wednesday – indicate casino supporters now outnumber opponents. The WBUR poll had the margin at 56-38 percent in favor.

Cameron said the commission received 300 comments in advance of Wednesday’s hearing and all but a handful favored moving ahead with the licensing process. She said Charlestown residents in particular wanted more information about the neighboring Wynn proposal in Everett. She said to O’Flaherty: “You made the assertion that your constituents agree with you and I’m not seeing that,” she said.

O’Flaherty said he was basing his comment on feedback he received from five elderly men at his local coffee shop who favored putting the licensing process on hold. “These are average working men, no fancy degrees,” he said.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

As for the expense associated with negotiating surrounding community agreements, an attorney representing Everett said there are ways for communities to recover some costs from the Gaming Commission. Frongillo said there was no mechanism for winning reimbursement, but Jonathan Silverstein, who advises municipalities, including Everett, on casino licensing issues, said his firm has recovered six-figure sums in the past to cover legal and other expenses associated with surrounding community agreements.

McHugh said Boston’s vagueness about whether it will file a lawsuit or go to the Legislature for relief if the initiative petition is voted down meant it made sense for the commission to proceed with the licensing process. That way, he said, the commission could close up shop if voters approve the initiative petition in November or be ready to move forward quickly if they reject the question.