Casino gambling a perennial hot topic since ’90s

The town-wide “straw vote” on a Narragansett Indian casino in West Warwick came on a day so hot in June 1999 that then-Gov. Lincoln Almond sent state employees home.

Even with the scorching temperatures, residents flocked to the polls, showing overwhelming support for the project in the highest turnout for a special election in town history.

With voters firmly approving the project, all that was needed was for the tribe to find a partner, propose a project and put it to the state’s voters.

But in the seven years since West Warwick voters said yes to the concept and Las Vegas gambling giant Harrah’s Entertainment came up with a proposal, efforts to seek the full state’s approval through a referendum have repeatedly failed.

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Casino gambling has been a perennial issue on Smith Hill since the early 1990s, when Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut began drawing gamblers over the state line.
The casino cut into the revenue of Rhode Island’s existing betting facilities – Lincoln Park and Newport Grand, then known as Lincoln Greyhound Park and Newport Grand Jai Alai – and reduced the state’s own income from those facilities.

In an effort to keep more gambling revenue in Rhode Island, legislators authorized video lottery terminals (VLTs), with a substantial cut for the state, at both sites. It was around that time, however, that the Narragansett Indian Tribe started talking about a casino.

The tribe’s original idea was to build a casino in West Greenwich. But leaders in other communities also wanted a gambling facility; in 1994, five different casinos projects in five communities went before voters in a statewide referendum. All were soundly defeated, although the Narragansett-backed project received the highest level of support.

Afterward, the Narragansetts announced plans to build a casino on their tribal land in Charlestown, legal under the federal laws that govern sovereign tribal lands. But a last-minute addition to federal legislation in 1996 dashed the tribe’s hopes.

U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee introduced a rider that stripped the Narragansetts’ land of its “Indian lands” status for gaming purposes. The move meant that the tribe had to seek voter approval for the project.

Narragansett Indian Tribe Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, who became leader of the tribe the following year, said in an interview last week that the Chafee rider dealt a harsh blow to the tribe’s efforts. He decried it as an effort to single out one federally recognized group of Indians and take away the rights that tribes throughout the country enjoy.

“Doing that to us cut a deep wound,” Thomas said. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, trying to get on the ballot.”

In 1997, the West Warwick effort began. Thomas said the tribe had been approached by a group of people in the town, including former Mayor J. Michael Levesque, about building a project on land in the town’s industrial park.

The tribe accepted the offer and began pushing to get a question on a statewide ballot.
In 2004, it looked like the tribe and Harrah’s were going to succeed. A bill to put the project before the voters cleared the General Assembly and survived a veto by Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a staunch casino opponent. But then Carcieri asked the R.I. Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the matter, and the court found that the proposal didn’t pass muster under the state constitution.

This year, as the casino lobby pushes to get a question on November’s ballot, an amendment to the state’s constitution is being sought.

In the years since the tribe began its casino push, the existing gambling facilities have made changes and upgrades. Newport Grand eliminated its jai alai facilities, has received approval to add more VLTs, and has spoken about building a hotel.

Lincoln Park has kept its greyhound races, but it’s also doing a major expansion that includes the addition of entertainment facilities like those in casinos. The project also includes the addition of 1,750 VLTs. Carcieri has supported both facilities’ efforts while continuing to blast the West Warwick casino proposal.

“The notion that there are additional jobs and additional revenues is foolish because nobody is looking at the other side – all of the jobs that would be lost and all of the revenue that would be lost,” he told hospitality leaders last month.

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Carcieri, said the governor supports the expansion of the existing facilities while opposing the casino project because of the payment structure.

With Lincoln and Newport, the state receives 60 percent of the total VLT earnings. The Harrah’s-operated casino would only pay about 25 to 40 percent of its earnings to the state (it is a sliding scale that increases the marginal rate the more money the casino generates).

“Right now the state relies heavily on revenue from the video slots at Lincoln Park and Newport Grand,” Neal said. “One of the reasons for that is we have the best deal of any state in the country.”

This year, while the West Warwick casino lobby started its annual pitch for the project, yet another interested party stepped forward – Donald Trump. The star of TV’s “The Apprentice” announced earlier this year that he wanted to build a casino in the town of Johnston, a project that the Johnston Town Council agreed to negotiate on.

But Thomas said the project, along with any other proposed in the state, should go through the rigorous process the tribe has endured with its plan.

“We’ve been out there, and we’ve been scrutinized for about six to eight years,” Thomas said.

“Any proposal – and this includes ‘Trump at the Dump’ – needs to be studied and scrutinized as much as we have been before anybody can talk about any such thing as competitive bidding.”