Oh, What Schemes of Glory This Business of Gambling Gives Birth To

Friday, October 7, 2016

Article 48, an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution adopted in 1918, states that “the people reserve to themselves the popular initiative, which is the power of a specified number of voters to submit constitutional amendments and laws to the people for approval or rejection…”

For many months now, a real estate developer with deep pockets has used the popular initiative to advance a plan to build a hotel and slots parlor on the site of an old trailer park in the City of Revere, not far from Suffolk Downs, the almost defunct horse racetrack that straddles the border of Revere and East Boston.  In doing so, he has thwarted the wishes of many city leaders, starting with the city’s young and idealistic first-term mayor, Brian Arrigo.
When Massachusetts voters go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, they’ll be asked to make a decision on this developer’s handiwork, Question #1, a proposed law that would allow the state Gaming Commission to issue one additional slots parlor license.

Because the developer, Eugene McCain, is following a particular game plan, he crafted the initiative with as many specific details as possible. The proposed location of the one, additional slots parlor, Question 1 says, “shall be at least 4 acres large, and shall be adjacent to, and within 1500 feet of, a race track, including the track, grounds, paddocks, barns, auditorium, amphitheater and/or bleachers, if any, where a horse racing meeting may be physically held, which race track shall have hosted a horse racing meeting, provided that said location is not separated from said race track by a highway or railway.”
Trying to keep the initiative off the November ballot, a group of ten citizens filed a lawsuit, arguing that the siting of a gambling facility is a local matter and that voters statewide ought not to have a say in it.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against those citizens in June.  Gambling, the court noted, is regulated by the state and “is plainly an issue of statewide concern.” 

The seemingly prescriptive wording of the petition did not trouble the court. 
The citizen-plaintiffs, wrote Chief Justice Ralph Gants, “have not demonstrated why a developer could not create a new entertainment complex that meets these specifications at any one of many possible locations across the Commonwealth where horse races have been held or could be conducted, and then proceed to apply for the new slots parlor license.”

According to the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, the popular initiative was authored by Mr. McCain as the leader of a group called the “Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee,” with an address listed as 353 Broadway, Revere.  Ballot materials indicate that the committee maintains a web site at:

Under the “About” section on this web site, there is a short text, which states, in part, that Question #1 “is an initiative, which if successful, would create hundreds of new jobs and add tens of millions of dollars to Massachusetts’ budget every year…On November 8th, the people of the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to vote Yes to better funding for our children’s schools…Say Yes to Jobs, Say Yes to 1.”
Among the items on the web site is a guest column by Mr. Cain in the Revere Journal headlined “Working with City Officials on Developing Hotel and Gaming Facility.” 

Mr. McCain wrote, “Our goal is to ensure that the City of Revere is not passed over again for a gaming facility…We know that the people of Revere want this, but we also know that we need to keep them more informed.  We are committed to becoming part of Revere.”
In a credit line at the bottom of the column, Mr. McCain is identified as “Chairman of the Revere Jobs and Education Committee,” a smaller sibling to the “Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee,” it would appear.  (The committee has “Horse Racing Jobs” in its title because part of the revenue from the hoped-for slots parlor would go to a Horse Racing Development Fund, in accordance with the 2011 law allowing casino gambling in the Commonwealth.)

Through a successful petition drive, the Revere Jobs and Education Committee is forcing the city to hold a special municipal election solely on the question of whether a slots parlor should be built in the community.  The minimum cost of the special election, which is now scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 18, has been estimated at $50,000.
Seeking to avoid that expense, local officials wanted to fold the local slots parlor plebiscite into the Nov. 8 election, but the Revere Jobs and Education Committee/Eugene McCain held firm to the wording and intent of the petition, i.e., to have the local question decided sometime before Oct. 26.

The Committee/McCain obviously hopes that, if a majority of Revere voters vote yes on the proposal in October, voters throughout Massachusetts will be more likely to approve Question 1 in November. 
As Peter Ubertaccio, a college professor widely recognized as an expert on the gambling industry, put it, “The point they (Committee/McCain) will make is that, if Revere wants a slots parlor, why should voters outside the city deny them.  Voters can say, ‘Hey, it’s not my town.’ ” [Boston Globe, 9-12-16]   

To bring about a special election, the Revere Jobs and Education Committee had to collect the signatures of at least 4,808 certified local voters.  That task paled in comparison to the one faced by the Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee: to get Question 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, it needed the signatures of 75,542 certified voters from across Massachusetts, a figure equal to 3.5% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
Unless you have a legion of dedicated and energetic volunteers at your disposal, as some non-profits do, you cannot collect that volume of signatures without paid signature-gatherers working weeks at a time in the field

The Boston Globe has reviewed the campaign spending reports filed by the Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee with the state.  On Sept. 12, it reported that the committee had spent “about $285,000 on the slots campaign as of February, the date of the most recently filed campaign spending report.”
In 1918, who could have foreseen the professionalization of the initiative petition process? 

Ninety-eight years later, we can see all too clearly that a legally guaranteed option of direct democracy is like many good things designed for a noble purpose.  It can be twisted out of its original shape fairly easily. In the reshaping, it can become a tool of surprising effect in our free enterprise system.





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