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R.I. House panel takes up gambling bill

State seeks cure for financial woes

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / May 14, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — Voters would be asked to approve expanded gambling in Rhode Island under a bill up for debate at the State House next week.

The bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would permit full-scale casino gambling at the state’s two licensed slot parlors, Twin River and Newport Grand. The facilities offer video lottery terminals, though not the table games found at traditional casinos, and account for a major revenue source in this financially sputtering state.

The constitutional amendment, if authorized by lawmakers, would be placed on the next statewide ballot. It would have to be approved statewide and by voters in either Newport or Lincoln, where Twin River is located.

Proponents of the bill say Rhode Island is constantly losing gamblers to sprawling casinos in neighboring Connecticut, and they fear competition from Massachusetts, where the House approved legislation to license two resort casinos and allow up to 3,000 slot machines at the state’s four race tracks. The measure has not yet been taken up by the Senate.

“Now Massachusetts is knocking on the door, and it’s something we have to look into and address and make a decision on how do we preserve what we have and expand it from a revenue perspective,’’ said Representative Stephen Ucci, a Johnston Democrat.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to consider the bill May 20.

Similar measures have been proposed and have failed previously. In 2006, for instance, voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the Narragansett Indian Tribe to join with Harrah’s Entertainment in building a casino in West Warwick.

House Speaker Gordon Fox has not taken a position on the bill and is waiting to see what emerges from next week’s hearing, said spokesman Larry Berman.

“He’s basically just said that there is concern about what’s happening in Massachusetts, so he’s looking forward to the debate,’’ Berman said.

Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman for Governor Don Carcieri, said the governor does not think casino gambling is sound economic development. She said he is more focused on helping to resuscitate Twin River, whose owners sought bankruptcy protection last year, and in relieving the facility of a requirement that it host greyhound racing.

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