PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — It won't be state lawmakers, a governor or casino lobbyists who decide whether Rhode Island joins a regional arms race over casinos. Instead, thanks to a provision in the state Constitution, the final say rests with the voters.
Lawmakers have already voted to schedule a ballot question on allowing the Twin River slot parlor in Lincoln to offer table games like poker and blackjack. A similar proposal from the Newport Grand slot parlor is now making its way through the General Assembly.
Voters will decide the issue in the November election. If history is any indicator, Rhode Islanders will reject the questions, just like they voted down repeated ballot questions in the past, most recently in 2006. The Constitution requires casino proposals to be approved by voters statewide and in the host community.
But the owners of the two facilities — along with their legislative supporters — are betting that the state's woeful economy and the threat of casinos opening up across the state line in Massachusetts have forever altered the debate. After years of considering the issue, Bay State lawmakers authorized casinos last fall.
Without the ability to offer the same types of games, Diane Hurley, Newport Grand's chief executive and co-owner, says economic studies show her facility may be forced to close.
"Acquiring table games is essential for our long-term survival," she said. "Newport itself is in danger because those casinos have the ability to give away what is the revenue source for Newport. That would be hotels, restaurants, shopping."
Longtime gambling opponents, however, caution the state's voters not to believe the gloomy predictions of gambling supporters. They worry the state is rushing to expand gambling without considering the ramifications for the state's economy and character.
Nowhere are the battle lines more clear than in Newport, with its historic streets, boutiques and seaside mansions.
"What we sell here is the charm and uniqueness of this community," said Nancy Corkery, a Newport resident and a member of Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling, a group formed more than 30 years ago to fight an earlier attempt to bring a casino to Newport. "A big casino would change that."
The Newport City Council endorsed the idea of a Newport Grand referendum in January without weighing in on the merits of hosting a casino.
The Rhode Island House is slated to vote Tuesday on whether to place the referendum on the ballot. The Senate has yet to weigh in.
Rhode Island's modest gambling facilities stand in contrast to its two neighbors, which have embraced gambling as a revenue source and tourism draw.
Connecticut boasts two of the nation's largest casinos — the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law in November authorizing up to three resort casinos in different areas of the state, and proposals have been floated to locate one in different parts of southeastern Massachusetts, close to Rhode Island.
Newport Grand and Twin River now offer electronic gambling games. The facilities generate around $300 million a year for the state. Supporters of expanded gambling like Rep. William San Bento say too much is at stake for the state's economy and its revenue to stand pat.
"I've been preaching this for 10 years, and it aggravates me that we're always behind the eight ball," said San Bento, a Pawtucket Democrat. "If Massachusetts opens up before we open up a full-fledged casino, we could lose anywhere up to $150 million."
A study commissioned by Gov. Lincoln Chafee estimates that without table games, the state could lose an estimated $100 million in annual revenue from Twin River alone if a casino opens up nearby in Massachusetts.
The facility says that with table games, the state could see $60 million in new revenue.
"Any venture that can provide hundreds of jobs in the state the size of Rhode Island is critical," said Patti Doyle, a spokeswoman for Twin River. "Here's a venue that could generate significant annual revenue for the state at a time when it really needs it."
But Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, argues the state would be better off pursuing other economic development proposals. He said that he believes the voters have already spoken on casinos, and that while casinos in Massachusetts may change the percentages, they won't change the outcome of the vote.
"How many times are we going to put it on the ballot?" he said. "I do not think my constituents will change their longstanding opposition to casinos. I think the vote could be closer, but I don't see it passing. I guess we'll find out."
Chafee, an independent, has said he is open to considering all the state's gambling options. Last year he considered a deal to allow the Narragansett Indian Tribe buy Twin River and open a casino there. Twin River ultimately rejected the suggestion.
Meanwhile, the Narragansett, whose own casino proposal was defeated by the voters in 2006, are suing to keep Twin River's referendum off the ballot. Chief Matthew Thomas said it's unfair that his tribe was required to pose its ballot question as a constitutional amendment, while Twin River is not being held to the same legal standard.
The tribe intends to add Newport Grand to the legal challenge if lawmakers approve the ballot question, Thomas said.
Thomas said he warned state leaders at the time that they would later regret not supporting the tribe's proposal. Now, he said, the state is rushing to catch up.
"I told them we're going to be the bologna in the sandwich because Connecticut has it and Massachusetts is going to get it," he said. "But Rhode Island is just so slow. And now we're not taking the time to do it properly."
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