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MGM funds pro-casino group in Springfield, Mass.

July 9, 2013

BOSTON (AP) — MGM Resorts International, which hopes to build a resort casino in Springfield, spent nearly $1 million over a six-week period in an effort to convince voters to back a July 16 referendum on the proposal, according to campaign finance records.

The leader of a group opposing the casino said it has spent little and is relying on grassroots efforts to get its message across.

Voters in the state’s third-largest city will be asked in next Tuesday’s referendum if they support a host community agreement reached between MGM and the administration of Mayor Domenic Sarno that calls for the company to make more than $25 million in annual payments to the city if the $800 million casino is built on a 14.5 acre South End site.

Voter approval of the host community agreement is required before MGM can apply to the state gaming commission for the sole western Massachusetts resort casino license.

According to a campaign finance report filed by the pro-casino group Yes for Springfield, MGM donated $480,000 to the group between May 17 and June 28. The group spent nearly $472,000 during that period, including about $385,000 in radio, television and billboard advertising.

MGM also made more than $500,000 in “in-kind” contributions for services including political consulting, staff time and travel during the same period, according to the report.

Carole Brennan, a spokeswoman for the company, said the funds allowed for an “extremely energetic” campaign.

“We did what was required to get as many people as possible the facts about MGM Springfield,” Brennan said in a statement. “MGM has spent the media dollars and related costs necessary to reach all residents.”

The Springfield group Citizens Against Casino Gaming wrote to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission earlier this week asking that it suspend all casino referendums in the state until a method was in place for informing voters about both sides of the argument.

In its request, which was turned down by the commission, the group cited the ability of large gaming companies to vastly outspend opponents, depriving voters of information that might shed a more negative light on casino proposals.

Michael Kogut, chairman of Citizens Against Casino Gaming, noted that in Everett, the first city to hold a binding referendum, companies controlled by Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn spent more than $460,000 prior to the June 22 vote in which Wynn’s proposed development was overwhelmingly approved. No organized opposition emerged in that city.

For statewide ballot questions, the Massachusetts Secretary of State is required to mail to all registered voters a booklet that provides pro and con arguments, but there is no such requirement for municipal ballot questions.

In the potentially high-stakes casino votes, Kogut said the “deck was stacked” against voters.

“There is no mechanism at all to level the playing field,” he said.

Kogut’s group had not yet filed its campaign finance report, but he said it would show that the group had only about $2,000 in the bank at the end of the month. The group has not done media advertising, focusing on community meetings and door-to-door canvassing.

“We have said from the start that this is a classic David vs. Goliath matchup,” Kogut said.

Opponents say casinos can lead to increased traffic and crime problems and prey on low-income people, the elderly and gambling addicts. But supporters of MGM’s proposal say the project will create jobs and economic development and breathe new life into an area of the city that was damaged in a 2011 tornado.

Meanwhile, a Chicago-based casino developer that ended talks for a slots parlor in Worcester now says it is working with officials in Millbury about finding a site there for a $200 million facility. Mass Gaming & Entertainment CEO Greg Carlin said Tuesday the company expects to choose a site in town soon. MGE is a subsidiary of Rush Street Gaming.

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