Casino plan moves ahead in Rhode Island

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – The House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment Thursday night that would allow the Narragansett Indian Tribe and an unnamed business partner to open a casino in West Warwick.

The amendment enables the tribe to skirt a provision in the Rhode Island constitution requiring state authorities to run all lotteries, including casinos. The state Supreme Court has twice ruled against casino gambling bills that it said didn’t give state authorities enough control over casino operations.

The amendment, passed by a vote of 44-28 in the House, now goes to the Senate. If both chambers approve it, voters will have their say on changing the constitution in November.

“We’re happy,” Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas said.

“We’re looking forward to the Senate and we hope we have the same sort of support and, at the end of the day, get on the ballot,” he said.

Rep. Timothy Williamson, D-West Warwick, originally introduced an amendment setting a tax of 25 percent to 40 percent on gaming income generated by the proposed casino. The House finance committee stripped away that language earlier this week, which means legislators must set a tax rate after voting on the amendment.

The amendment does not say who will run the casino, but the tribe has long been partnered with Las Vegas-based Harrah’s Entertainment.

Amendment supporters have said Harrah’s will invest up to $1 billion under their latest proposal and pay a $100 million licensing fee to the state. Williamson argued that Rhode Island voters should decide the issue, not state legislators.

“The Rhode Island Constitution is not the Ten Commandments,” he said. “It’s a living, breathing document that the people have the right to change when they deem it necessary to do so.”

Rep. Nicholas Gorham, R-Coventry, led a group of dissenters who argued against altering the constitution to serve what he called private interests, namely Harrah’s.

“What we end up with,” Gorham said, “is a bill that says we’re going to give a special privilege to a certain group of people in our constitution who have chosen a large multinational corporation with unlimited resources to brainwash us this fall into thinking that this a good idea.”

Jan Jones, a senior vice president for Harrah’s, called the vote a success minutes after the results were announced.

“As you notice, many of the representatives that voted for the bill don’t necessarily support casino gambling, but they do support the people’s right to decide,” she said.

Rep. Carol Mumford, R-Scituate, warned the casino could hurt the state’s revenue just as lawmakers are trying to close a $275 million budget deficit. A major casino in West Warwick could decrease business to Providence’s restaurants, theaters and convention centers, she said.

Rhode Island gets about 60 percent of gaming income from the state’s two slot parlors, the Newport Grand and Lincoln Park. State authorities previously agreed to reimburse both slot parlors if their revenue declines from competition with a casino, said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Don Carcieri.

“Instead of studying the consequences of what they were going to vote on, the House of Representatives today decided to vote now and ask questions later,” Neal said in a statement.

Amendment opponents introduced a slew of alternatives to derail the proposal, including one serious challenge introduced by a legislator from Johnston, where developer Donald Trump recently expressed interest in building a casino.

Rep. Stephen Ucci’s revision would have required casino developers to bid for the opportunity to run a casino, a move that could advance Trump’s project. That proposal was defeated 26-46.

AP-ES-05-25-06 2305EDT


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