PROVIDENCE -- The House Finance Committee approved a constitutional amendment yesterday allowing the Narragansett Indian Tribe and an unnamed business partner to build a casino in West Warwick.
The 14-5 vote means the amendment will be considered by all lawmakers in the House, the next of several hurdles before it can become law.
But legislators on the finance committee postponed a decision on the proposed casino's tax rate until next year, an abrupt revision unveiled just before the start of the committee meeting. An earlier version of the bill called for a minimum 25 percent tax on net gaming income.
``This is only round one, a positive round for the tribe, the people of Rhode Island," said Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas. ``Never count any chickens before they hatch in Rhode Island."
The bill, introduced by Representative Timothy Williamson, a Democrat from West Warwick, would override a constitutional provision that has kept the tribe from building a casino.
Rhode Island's constitution requires that state authorities operate all lotteries. The state Supreme Court has defined casinos as lotteries, and the court has twice ruled that earlier casino gambling bills were unconstitutional because they didn't leave state authorities with enough control over casino operations.
Williamson's amendment would specifically authorize the Narragansett Indian Tribe and an unnamed business partner to build a casino. The tribe has been linked with Las Vegas-based
An earlier version of the bill would have set a 25 to 40 percent tax on net casino gaming income. By comparison, the state gets a 60 percent cut from Rhode Island's two slot parlors, the Newport Grand and Lincoln Park.
The revision brought criticism from Republican Governor Don Carcieri, an opponent of casino gambling. ``Under the proposal approved today, we have no idea how much the state will receive -- if anything," said his spokesman, Jeff Neal, in a statement. ``While our state constitution should not be for sale at any price, we definitely shouldn't be giving it away for free."
Carcieri previously denounced the proposed amendment as a ``sweetheart deal" for Harrah's. He has argued that a casino would detract business from entertainment venues in Providence and decrease the state's share of slot machine revenue.
Supporters of the amendment have said Harrah's will invest up to $1 billion under its latest proposal and pay a $100 million licensing fee to the state. Williamson said Rhode Islanders should decide the question.
``We don't regulate the number of TVs people buy, the number of cars they own," he said. ``We can't regulate how they spend their discretionary income."
This year, the Narragansetts are facing competition in their bid to build a casino. Developer Donald Trump and his partners have approached officials in Johnston about building a casino near the state dump. Since then, several lawmakers have called for a process that would force companies interested in developing a casino to bid for a license from the state.
To become law, the proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by the Senate and then by Rhode Island voters in a general referendum.