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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Little opposition to state Casino ballot questions

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff
Unlike 2006, there’s scant opposition to removing the last hurdle to casino gambling in Rhode Island this Election Day.
This time around, several opponents of past gambling referendums have changed their minds, including the governor’s office and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat. To help pave the way for two full-fledged casinos, Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed a new casino revenue-sharing bill in June.

Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Cranston, a former opponent of a Rhode Island casino, is a reluctant supporter of the initiative this year. “I think people are resigned that this has to pass or there will more financial straits in the future,” Marcello said.
Casinos boost state revenue, but studies show they also put strains on open space, infrastructure and transportation. Casinos often come with massive parking lots, traffic congestion, a big carbon footprint, and burdens on local waterways and water systems.
The environmental community, however, is mum on ballot questions 1 and 2. Instead, groups such as Save The Bay, The Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Environmental Management are advocating for questions 5 and 6, which seek public financing for open space protection and improvements to Rhode Island's drinking and wastewater systems — infrastructure that will be stressed by growing casinos.
And grow they do.
Foxwoods Resort Casino in neighboring Connecticut started in 1986 as a bingo hall. Today, the mega-casino has 4.7 million square feet of space for gambling and amenities such as golf courses, stage venues, restaurants, shops, hotels, spas and conference facilities.
The three destination casino resorts planned for Massachusetts will offer similar amenities. Proposals also include a water park and a marina.
If history is a reliable indicator, the Connecticut casinos aren’t going to stand by and lose revenue to new casinos in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They will build to offer newer attractions. Foxwoods already has plans for a new shopping mall with a retractable roof.
Both Twin River in Lincoln and Newport Grand say they have no immediate plans to expand if table gambling is approved by voters. But Twin River has a 190-acre site to build on. Mohegan Sun, one of the largest casinos in the United States, sits on 187 acres.
Newport Grand, which is built on a capped landfill, nearly went forward with a $1.4 billion expansion in 2007 to redevelop the existing 24-acre site of its slot parlor and expand on 30 additional acres of state- and Navy-owned land.
Newport has mounted a campaign against the casino expansion referendum. One major objection cited by Concerned Citizens About Casino Gambling is the near complete control the state has over development and expansion into other parts of the city. “We’re getting a lousy, lousy deal,” said Laurice Shaw, an advocate for the Newport-based group.
New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch used the same reasoning in his opposition to gambling in a 2011 letter to the New Hampshire Legislature.
"Even if proponents are successful in limiting an initial bill to one or two gambling locations, I do not believe expanded gambling would stay limited to one or two locations over the long term. When revenue failed to meet expectations, there would be a strong push to expand gambling to other parts of the state. West Virginia, according to a study commission report, began in 1994 with just allowing slot machines at racetracks. Yet by 2009, gambling had expanded to such an extent that a single West Virginia county, with a population of just 37,000 people, had 37 mini casinos. New Hampshire could end up with casinos, or slot machines, across our state," Lynch wrote.
As Las Vegas and Connecticut have shown, casinos have a history of growth and stagnation, all the while expanding their size. According the pro-gambling lobbying group American Gaming Association, the industry boasts of a 9 percent annual growth rate. Between 2001 and 2011, gambling revenue increased from $28 billion to $35 billion. During the past 25 years, gambling has expanded from two to 22 states.
Rhode Island, as the second most densely populated state and covered by about 12 percent impervious surface, would wrestle with many of the side effects of casino growth.
“Don’t be fooled by the multimillion-dollar TV ads,” said former Oregon governor Barbara Roberts in a recent newspaper interview. Roberts opposes the Nov. 6 casino ballot referendum in her state. “This is not about water features or movie theaters or farmers markets or fine dining. This is about money, big money — gambling money, and gaming profits.”