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Casino opponents gather 2nd round of signatures

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Theirs is a David and Goliath story, says Erin Earnst of Foxboro. The gaming industry, Goliath, has billions of dollars, lobbyists and the support of the Massachusetts Legislature, which passed the casino law in 2011.

Their opponents, David, are local volunteers with donations from citizens in Massachusetts. Earnst and more than 100 others collect signatures for Repeal the Casino Deal, the initiative petition that aims to put expanded gaming on the ballot this November. If the drive is successful, all voters will weigh in on whether or not casinos are in the best interest of the Commonwealth.

Two more hurdles must be cleared before the measure appears on the ballot. First, 11,485 new signatures must be gathered and turned over to the state's attorney general by June 18. Second, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) must rule against the attorney general and find that the ballot initiative is constitutional.

Attorney General Martha Coakley rejected the petition last fall. The petition's supporters approached the courts, and the SJC granted an injunction that allowed the signature drive to continue. The campaign collected 72,901 signatures -- nearly 4,000 more than necessary to move the initiative forward. Now, the SJC needs to rule on the petition's constitutionality by July 9 so that the Secretary of State can begin printing ballots.

Coakley has argued that overturning the casino law would take away the applications for casino licenses, which, in her estimation, are property. Casino opponents say that the casino law itself says that the applications and licenses for casinos are revocable and, therefore, not guaranteed contracts.

The expanded gambling law legalizes three resort casinos and one slot parlor. Its supporters claim casinos will create thousands of jobs and bring in hundreds of millions of new tax dollars. The law appropriates 25 percent of casino revenue and 40 percent of slots revenue to go back to the state and local communities. Each casino license bid starts at $85 million.

Opponents have been working to repeal the law and fighting battles in individual cities and towns that have voted on hosting a casino in their own backyards.

Earnst said that the fight was "brought right to our front door" in Foxboro. She and other members of the community organized and successfully stopped a proposal from going forward. She also lives a mile from Plainville where another casino has been proposed, but this time she and members of other surrounding communities have no say in that proposal.

"The threat of a license being awarded there is something of great concern to our community," she said, adding that she had met with residents of Wrentham and North Attleboro who were also concerned.

Just a few weeks ago, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation refused changes in traffic flow outside the project's site. As it stands now, anyone exiting a casino there could not turn left -- in the direction of Plainville. Instead, they would be forced to take a right -- toward Wrentham and Foxboro.

Opponents say casinos create economic blight, tear families apart, increase rates of divorce, bankruptcy and suicide. A federal study shows that gambling addiction rates double within 50 miles of a casino. Casinos also draw crowds that disproportionately belong to society's lowest income brackets.

"The gambling industry is really designed to foster addiction," Earnst said. "It preys on the most vulnerable people in our community."

She maintains that casinos are bad for the entire state.

"Whether it's a mile from our home or 50 miles away, it's something that we feel strongly is not good for our state. Any perceived benefits are just outweighed by the negative impacts," she said. "We can do much better in our state."

As a Catholic, Earnst said she sees it as an issue of social justice. She felt compelled to get involved in the local fight and to oppose casinos statewide.

John F. Ribeiro of Winthrop, chairman of the Repeal the Casino Deal and a Catholic, said that the Church needs to lead the way in opposition to casinos.

"We need to stop kind of sitting on the sidelines and treating our faith more as a hobby than as an active piece of who we are," he said.

He added that the time to get rid of the casino law is before the licenses are granted.

"Once it's here, it only gets bigger and gets a stronger foothold," he said.

Ribeiro said that anyone who would like to sign the petition can print it out at www.5signatures.com and mail it to the address on the petition by June 9. For more information on assisting the signature drive or to request to receive a petition by mail, visit www.repealthecasinodeal.org.

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