The new Rhode Island: Gambling is us

Jun 17, 2013

There’s an old chestnut in banking: If you owe the bank $10,000, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank $100 million, you own the bank.

That’s pretty much what has happened in Rhode Island state government’s quest to regulate the state-sponsored gambling emporiums at Newport Grand and at Twin River (aka Twin Rivahs in Vo Dilundese) in Lincoln.

While some local media voices have focused on the eleventh-hour travel of casino legislation winding its way through the State House in the closing hours of the 2013 General Assembly session, there really isn’t anything mysterious or even controversial about the measure.

This legislation simply allows the state to regulate the new casino-style table games that Rhode Island and Lincoln voters in 2012 allowed Twin River to install at the cavernous slot-machine facility on the site of the late and unlamented dog-track, Lincoln Greyhound Park.

Such legislation shouldn’t be tossed in the Assembly hopper at the last minute, but in this case, that is more a process criticism than a substantive one. All the measure really does is give the state the authority, via the state police, to regulate blackjack, craps, card games, roulette and baccarat at  Twin River.

Voters in Newport nixed Newport Grand’s attempt to usher in a full-fledged casino in the City by the Sea, so there will be no tables games there, at least until Massachusetts brings in competition that eats Newport Grand’s lunch and Newport voters change their minds in some election down the road.

The salient point is that in most of Rhode Island, and certaintly  at the Statehouse, the years-long debate over allowing Las Vegas-genre casinos is as dead as our state’s Republican Party. In fact, it was pretty much entombed after Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond, who viewed state-sponsored gambling as little more than a cheap tax on the poor, left office in 2003.

Since the early 1990s, Rhode Island debated allowing casinos in the Ocean State. Until 2012, the answer was a resounding No every time voters tackled the issue. Those days are over. And the reason is simple: Our government is addicted to the money harvested from the one-arm bandits of the slot machines and now the table games that begin in a few days at Twin River. The No casino state has become the Go casino state.

Last year, Lincoln and Newport contributed about  $320 million to state coffers, the third largest source of state money, behind only the sales and income taxes. The state gets 61 percent of video game receipts at Twin River and will capture 18 percent of whatever is wagered on table games.

Hundreds of employees put food on their family tables working at our legal gambling venues. And with Massachusetts about to join Connecticut in building destination casinos, replete with hotels, corporate meeting spaces, golf courses, shopping malls and fancy sports facilities, Rhode Island has scant choice but to protect what we have in the way of state-boosted gambling.

What was once considered unthinkable in Rhode Island is now the New Normal. Welcome to the 21st century, where the gambling industry owns our Statehouse and there isn’t anything lawmakers can do about it, even if they wanted to.