UPDATE 1-Massachusetts court OKs gambling referendum

Tue Jun 24, 2014 2:18pm EDT

(Adds reaction from gambling companies)

By Elizabeth Barber

BOSTON, June 24 (Reuters) - Massachusetts voters will have an opportunity in November to repeal a 2011 law legalizing gambling, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on Tuesday, casting uncertainty over a years-long effort to bring casinos to the state.

The question came before the court after Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sought to block the casino referendum, arguing it could violate property rights of developers.

The "voters of Massachusetts may choose to abolish casino and slots parlor gambling," the court said in its unanimous decision, noting gambling opponents had gathered more than enough signatures to place the question on the ballot.

Coakley, a Democrat who is running for governor, said in a statement she was pleased the court had ruled on the matter and that "it is now an issue that will be decided by the voters in the fall."

Under the gambling law, Massachusetts can award three casino licenses statewide. But just one has been awarded so far and the winner, Las Vegas developer MGM Resorts International, has put off formally accepting the license until the repeal question is settled.

An MGM official did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The company's casino would be located in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield.

Meanwhile, developers Mohegan Sun and Wynn Resorts are seeking the state's eastern Massachusetts license with competing proposals near Boston. The state's gaming commission is expected to choose between the two in August.

Mohegan Sun said in a statement it will seek to make the case to voters on "why this law is good for workers, good for the economy and good for the commonwealth."

Wynn declined comment.

Casino advocates say the resorts will bring windfalls to cash-strapped communities and staunch the flow of money into casinos elsewhere in the Northeast. But critics say casinos could drive up crime and hurt property values.

John Ribeiro, chairman of anti-casino group Repeal The Casino Deal, which led the referendum effort, said his group was elated by the court's decision.

Casino gambling has had mixed success in New England. Connecticut has two large casinos owned by Indian tribes, Maine has two small casinos and Rhode Island has two slot machine parlors. New Hampshire state legislators last year rejected a bill that would have allowed construction of a casino that had strong support from Governor Maggie Hassan.

The Massachusetts law also allows for a slots parlor license. One was awarded in February to Penn National Gaming in Plainville, about 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Boston.

Penn spokesman Eric Schippers said the company would launch an informational campaign ahead of the referendum and was still counting on a June 2015 opening.

"For us, this campaign will be about education, it will be about informing voters about all the jobs that are at stake here," he said. (Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Bill Trott)

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