RI slot parlor taking a chance with voters

By David Klepper
Associated Press / July 12, 2011

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Supporters of a plan to allow poker, blackjack and other table games at a northern Rhode Island slot parlor say the state could lose as much as $100 million if neighboring Massachusetts authorizes casinos and the Ocean State does not.

The race to bring a full-fledged casino to Rhode Island turned another corner last month when state lawmakers voted to place the question on next year's ballot. Voters will be asked to allow the Twin River slot parlor in Lincoln to expand its offerings to include table games.

Twin River and its allies say the state stands to gain an estimated 650 jobs and $60 million in additional state revenue if voters approve the ballot question. And they warn that Rhode Island's loss will be Massachusetts' gain if they do not. Massachusetts lawmakers have yet to approve a casino deal, but a spokeswoman for Twin River said casinos are bound to pass sooner or later.

"The threats from Massachusetts are real -- just a matter of time before the Commonwealth unveils its own gaming plans," said spokeswoman Patti Doyle.

Critics of the referendum note that Rhode Island voters have defeated attempts to authorize casinos in the Ocean State before, most recently in 2006 when voters turned down the Narragansett Indian Tribe's request to open a casino. State law requires voter approval of casinos.

"Every time this comes up it's rejected," said state Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate. "At some point you have to respect the will of the voters. I think our time would be better spent trying to find other ways to bring more high paying jobs into the state."

A leading opponent of casinos in Rhode Island said the measures fail because voters don't believe the rosy predictions made by casino supporters. Rev. Eugene McKenna, president of Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling, said a casino is more likely to increase gambling addiction than cure the state's fiscal woes.

"The people of Rhode Island see it's a false hope," he told The Associated Press. "So many people know somebody whose life has been ruined or seriously harmed by addiction. People realize casino gambling is not economic development."

But supporters say the economy, high unemployment rates and the threat of losing state revenue to Massachusetts may change voters' minds next year.

State Rep. William San Bento, D-Pawtucket, pushed to place the question before the voters. He said the state's budget problems and the new jobs promised by Twin River should convince voters that casino gaming will be a boon.

"We've got a head start. Even if Massachusetts approves it, it's going to take a few years to build the casinos," he said. "We've got a head start. Twin River is up and running. The state needs the revenue, and I think people understand that."

In the meantime, Gov. Lincoln Chafee has called for a study to analyze all of the state's options when it comes to gambling, including table games at Twin River as well as a tribal casino.

But Tony Mazzoti said the time for studies and economic analyses is passed. The 80-year-old Cranston man was at Twin River Tuesday to play the slots. He said Rhode Island should authorize table games at Twin River not so he can play them, but so the state can prevent revenue from heading north.

"We're last in line in everything we do in Rhode Island," he said. "The state needs every penny it can grab. And if we don't grab it, Massachusetts will."