Casino Gambling: Is 2012 The Year?

Monday, May 02, 2011

 

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There are few sure things about the 2012 election cycle, but a vote to expand casino gaming in Rhode Island appears to be the exception. With the state desperate to bring in new revenue, members of the General Assembly will soon decide whether to allow a public referendum on next year’s ballot that would ask voters to allow table games at Twin River and potentially generate over $100 million for the state, according to one legislator.

A bill introduced by William San Bento (D-58) has not gone in front of the House Finance Committee yet, but if last year is any indication, it should have no problem getting to House floor and passing in both chambers.

And this year, Governor Donald Carcieri isn’t there to block the vote.

Could Generate $100 Million

San Bento proposed the legislation a week after the Town of Lincoln approved a resolution asking the General Assembly to give residents the opportunity to vote on expanding Twin River to allow blackjack and other tables. The state requires both local and statewide votes to alter the gaming laws.

San Bento says the opportunity to generate new revenue is too important not to give voters the ability to decide. By voting to expand to table games, the state rep believes Rhode Island will be able to get a head start on Massachusetts (which is widely expected to enter the gaming business) and start to win back Ocean State residents who make the trip to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun to gamble.

“I honestly feel the addition of table games could generate another $100 million in revenue for the state, at a time when we face a significant budget deficit and the potential for cuts in state programs,” San Bento said last week.

Similar Bill Passed Last Year

This isn’t the first go around for San Bento and casino gaming. He sponsored a similar bill last year that overwhelmingly passed the House (68-12) and the Senate (21-14). But Governor Carcieri vetoed the referendum when it went to his desk.

At the time, Carcieri said too much “critical financial information” was unknown for him to sign the bill. He wanted to learn more about the split of money between the state and the casino.

“Leaving the question of splits to future determination is a deeply flawed strategy because the very grant of gaming authority to a private party, before determining the financial arrangement with the state, eviscerates the negotiating power of the state,” the former governor said.

The question of how much the state would potentially receive is still up in the air, but it is believed Governor Lincoln Chafee would not veto the bill if it passes again. On multiple occasions during his campaign last fall, Chafee said he doesn’t believe full-fledged gaming is much of leap from the current form, which only allows slots and video machines.

San Bento Confident

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San Bento (at left) agrees with Chafee. He dismissed the idea that table games are any different than video games. He said he is confident his bill will be supported by his colleagues.

“There will always be detractors,” San Bento said. “We have it all right now. It’s semantics when any one says [table gaming] is a different kind of gambling. It’s not true. This is something that won easily last year and I believe it will help bring in revenue.“

The Need To Beat Massachusetts

San Bento believes the time is now for expanded casino gambling because the state can’t afford to lose potential gamblers to its neighbors to the north. According to a 2010 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, “Rhode Island residents spent approximately $235.9 million in CY 2009 at Connecticut’s two Native American casinos, compared to $250.9 million in CY 2008, $261.0 million in CY 2007, and $291.6 in CY 2006.”

In comparison, the study found that “Rhode Island residents spent approximately $246.8 million at Twin River and Newport Grand in CY 2009, compared to $286.2 million in CY 2008, $271.6 million in CY 2007, and $251.3 in CY 2006.

The relatively even numbers suggest Rhode Islanders are willing to travel for an enhanced experience, which in Connecticut’s case, means larger casinos that include table games. If Massachusetts were to move forward with full-fledged gaming before Rhode Island, San Bento said Ocean State could stand to lose even more potential players, even if Twin River eventually expands its gaming.

For San Bento, it appears the argument is about what the state can expect to lose just as much as about what it stands to gain.

“If we don’t [expand to table games], we’ll lose almost $100 million in revenue,” he said. “The state needs to be ahead of the curve.”

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