The State Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday cleared the path for opponents of casino gambling who want to repeal the state’s gambling law by referendum vote on Election Day. Even the state’s most ardent foes of gambling, however, must ask if repeal is fair to casino companies that, like them or not, have invested in good faith in Massachusetts, and whether repeal will send a signal to business in general that the state may regret sending.
The SJC unanimously overturned a finding by Attorney General Martha Coakley that the proposed ballot question was unconstitutional because it would cause casino developers to lose property without compensation. Writing for the seven-member court, Justice Ralph Gants said "... the possibility of abolition is one of the many foreseeable risks" investors took when they bid for casinos. The casino giants that descended upon Massachusetts following the law’s signing by Governor Patrick certainly knew that they would lose the money they invested in buying property and lobbying for their selection if the casino commission chose a competitor for the three resort casino and one slots parlor licenses, but it is not clear given the time frame that they knew the casino law itself could be abolished.
Casinos are trouble because they prey on those with low incomes, burden roads and police forces, and jeopardize local restaurants and entertainment venues.
However, laws passed by legislative bodies and signed by governors mean something, and that meaning is diluted when they are overturned. That is the weakness of the referendum process, which doesn’t take into consideration the subtleties and ramifications that lawmakers must. The casino companies may cry "bait-and-switch" and call their lawyers, while other businesses considering investing in the state may wonder about the solidity of laws related to their industry.
When asked about this scenario during a visit to The Eagle last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Donald Berwick, an advocate of the repeal initiative, said a vote to repeal would be an acknowledgment that "we made a mistake" in passing the law, and would not "establish a pattern" of overturning laws by referendum. It could, however, be the first step in establishing that pattern. At any rate, the repeal question must be considered in the context of its possible ramifications.