New plan to allow casinos in R.I.

Bill avoids need for amendment

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / June 9, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island voters would decide whether to expand gambling in their state by allowing its two slot machine parlors to become full-scale casinos, under a bill debated yesterday.

The bill before the House Finance Committee seeks a referendum on whether to allow casino gambling at Twin River in Lincoln and at Newport Grand. The two parlors offer video lottery terminals but not the live blackjack, poker, and craps games found at traditional casinos.

The committee heard testimony but took no immediate action.

The bill’s supporters say that gambling would spur economic development in the fiscally slumping state.

They also say it is important to keep pace with neighboring states, such as Connecticut, where the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos are major destinations, and Massachusetts, where lawmakers yesterday debated a proposal to license three casinos.

The original version of the Rhode Island bill sought a constitutional amendment to permit privately owned and operated casinos.

But lawmakers weighed a new version yesterday that they said would eliminate the need for an amendment by putting the state, rather than a private operator, in control and operation of the casinos at Twin River and Newport Grand.

The revised legislation would authorize the state to determine the number, type, and placement of table games, collect all receipts, and define the rules and odds for authorized casino games.

The casinos would need statewide approval and the backing of voters in either Lincoln or Newport.

In 2006, voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the Narragansett Indian tribe to join with Harrah’s Entertainment to open a casino in West Warwick.

Barry Flynn, a Newport resident, urged the committee to reject the legislation, pointing out that voters have spurned previous efforts to expand gambling. He compared casino proponents to children who badger their parents so they can get what they want. “It’s your responsibility to be grown-ups now and follow the will of the people as stated,’’ Flynn told the committee.

“They’re hoping that they’re going to just bore the state voters into some kind of catatonia or lack of interest, and then it’ll get passed eventually. That’s what I’m afraid you’re going to do.’’

The Rev. Eugene McKenna, president of Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling, said he was concerned that the bill had been altered late in the process to avoid the need for a constitutional amendment.

“All of a sudden, and it is suddenly, we find out that maybe there’s a legal loophole where we don’t need to have a constitutional amendment. We can do it some other way,’’ McKenna said, adding that the proposal should be better vetted and “take lots and lots of time’’ to consider.

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