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Massachusetts court OKs gambling referendum

By Elizabeth Barber

BOSTON (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 one slot parlor license and three casino licenses statewide.

The slots license was awarded in February and just one of the three casino licenses has been awarded. The winner, Las Vegas developer MGM Resorts International, has put off formally accepting the license for its development in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield until the repeal question is settled.

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

Officials from MGM, Mohegan Sun and Wynn were not immediately available to comment on the court's decision.

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

"This is kind of a small victory in a big battle that we're still fighting," said Joseph Catricala, co-chair of Don't Gamble on Revere, a casino-opposition group that led the referendum effort. He called the statewide vote the "best shot" at stopping casino development in the state.

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.

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