BOSTON (AP) - The state's highest court ruled Tuesday that voters can decide the fate of Massachusetts' casino gambling law, throwing the future of casinos into question.
Under the ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, a question calling for repeal of the 2011 law can appear on the November ballot.
The ruling overturns Attorney General Martha Coakley's finding that the proposed ballot question is unconstitutional because it would cause casino developers to lose property without compensation.
The law allows for up to three regional resort casinos and one slots parlor in Massachusetts. The state gambling commission recently granted MGM Resorts International a license for a proposed $800 million casino in Springfield. The two remaining casino licenses have not yet been awarded, while the slots parlor license has been awarded to the Plainridge harness track in Plainville.
Coakley, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said earlier that her finding was a "close call" and she would respect whatever decision the court makes.
Arguing to get the repeal question on the ballot, casino opponents said developers aren't entitled to any compensation because no property or contract rights exist. They also maintained that the state has "police powers" to revisit and revise laws affecting "public morals and welfare" at any time.
In their repeal campaign, opponents, including former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, say casinos are a predatory industry and their presence would lead to increased crime and gambling addiction and would hurt small businesses near the resorts.
Proponents point to thousands of permanent jobs and temporary construction jobs that would be created, along with an influx of new tax revenue for the state. The 2011 law imposes a 25 percent tax on gross gambling revenues at the casinos and a 40 percent tax on slots parlor revenues.
Casino developers also have negotiated agreements that promise financial benefits for host communities. MGM, for example, agreed to pay Springfield $15 million in advance payments and an additional $25 million annually after the casino opens. In awarding the western Massachusetts license, gambling commissioners said the company would not have to pay an $85 million licensing fee until the repeal issue was settled.
The group Repeal the Casino Deal challenged Coakley's ruling in court while continuing to gather voter signatures to put the repeal question on the ballot. The group said last week that it had collected more than double the required number to put the question to a popular vote.
Wynn Resorts and Mohegan Sun are vying for the eastern Massachusetts casino license. Wynn has proposed a $1.6 billion casino along the Mystic River in Everett; Mohegan Sun is pushing a plan for a $1.3 billion complex on land owned by Suffolk Downs in Revere. A commission decision is expected in September.
The law also allows for a third casino license for the southeastern part of the state. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is seeking federal land-in-trust approval to have a casino in Taunton, and tribal leaders have said they would continue to pursue a casino through the federal Indian gambling process even if the state gambling law is repealed.