The Art of the Casino Host City Agreement Is Bound to Produce Some Ill Will, Jealousy

Friday, August 30, 2013

If you’re the mayor of any city in Massachusetts, you’re always sweating the budget.

“The hardest part about being mayor?  Easy:  there’s never enough money.  The needs are endless.”

That’s what one gentleman told me after he declined to run for re-election as the mayor of a mid-size city north of Boston.  He retired from politics to resume control of the local businesses he owned, enterprises then on the downswing because he had spent so much time at city hall.

Imagine that you’re now a mayor and you’ve just signed a host city agreement with a casino operator.  This is a deal requiring the operator to put tens of millions of dollars into your treasury every year when and if the operator wins a license from the state to build a casino in your community.

Imagine, for example, that you’re Mayor Tom Menino of Boston, Mayor Carlo DeMaria of Everett, Mayor Dan Rizzo of Revere, Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield, or Mayor Greg Neffinger of West Springfield, and that some casino giant has pledged to give your city payments of $32 million, $25 million, $15.2 million, $25 million and $26 million, respectively, every year, for as long as that casino is running.

Do you think you’d be getting a little giddy, dreaming of all the problems those big casino bucks will make go away? 

I know I would.  I’d be as bad as Big Ern, the character played by Bill Murray in the movie “Kingpin.”  After winning a huge purse in a professional bowling tournament, Big Ern shouts: “I’m rich!  Big Ern is above the law!”

Or if you’re Mayor Rizzo right now, maybe you’re getting a little jealous and disgruntled, seeing as how Mayor Menino will do a lot better on the Suffolk Downs/Caesar’s Palace deal than you will? 

Or if you’re Mayor DeMaria, maybe you’re having second thoughts about the pact you made with Steve Wynn now that you see what Mayor Neffinger will get from Hard Rock International: $1 million more a year than you?  A million dollars pays for a lot of teachers' and firefighters' salaries. 

These casino host city arrangements are not exactly a science. But it looks like Wynn would earn considerably more on his casino in Everett because it would be close to the heart of metropolitan Boston, whereas the Hard Rock would likely have a harder time of it out in less populous western Mass.

“Comparisons lead to violence.”

That was a quote I saw in a recent article in the Sunday New York Times magazine, which had nothing at all to do with casinos or gambling. It has stuck in my mind.  I don’t know why. 

And now that I’m thinking about the varying casino bonanzas on the horizon in Boston, Everett, Revere, Springfield and West Springfield, I’m thinking there’s some applicability here.

No, I don’t expect Carlo DeMaria to come to blows with Tom Menino, or Dom Sarno to go after Greg Neffinger with a baseball bat.  These are civilized guys.  I’m talking political warfare. 

Politics is where we have collectively agreed to sublimate our violent impulses into bloodless expressions of fear, anger, contention, dominance and revenge.

As intense as it may have been, the politicking we’ve seen so far around the enactment of the casino legislation and the local referenda on host city agreements will look like a high school class election compared to what’s coming up.

In the next phase, every city with a voter-approved host city agreement and the casino corporations behind each of those agreements will do everything possible to influence the licensing decisions of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in their favor.  The commission has only three license to bestow, one each for western Mass, eastern Mass and the southeast corner of the state. 

(That’s two licenses too many.  After a few years of the three Massachusetts casinos competing against each other, as well as against the new casino likely to arise in southern New Hampshire, I predict we’ll see a casino rescue bill in the Massachusetts legislature.  “You have to cut our host city payments and taxes to save all these jobs in our casinos,” they’ll be telling lawmakers.)

The pressure on the gaming commission members -- Gayle Cameron, Stephen Crosby, James McHugh, Bruce Stebbins and Enrique Zuniga -- will be intense.  Most of it will be applied behind the scenes.  Think of all the construction and service industry union guys, not to mention all the municipal and state office holders, who will be calling people they know who are friends or relatives of the commissioners and urging them to “put a good word in for us.” We’ll probably never know how the commissioners will have handled all that.

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