How not to Write a Casino Amendment
First things first: I’m not a big proponent of state-sponsored gambling. I understand it can be fun for the participant, but I think that the revenue generated by gambling proceeds give a false sense of security to our politicians. Have a potential revenue shortfall? Let’s not cut spending, let’s increase gambling! We can argue over whether or not gambling is addictive to individuals: what is certain is that it is most addictive to government.
With that being said, I don’t mind the idea of letting the people vote on whether or not they want a casino. But first, a privately operated casino (instead of state-run) needs to be deemed constitutional. The State Supreme Court has said it isn’t–twice. Thus, we now have a push for a Constitutional Amendment. But instead of writing a clean, concise line or two saying something like, oh, I don’t know….”gambling does not have to be state-operated”, we have this:
“Approval of this amendment to the state Constitution will authorize a casino gaming facility in the town of West Warwick, to be privately owned and operated in association with the Narragansett Indian Tribe, with tax proceeds from the casino being dedicated to property-tax relief for Rhode Island citizens, and will permit future privately owned and operated casino gaming facilities in this state only upon further vote of the people.”
Where’s the part that says only Del’s Lemonade and Saugy’s weiners can be served at the establishment? Such specificity is not the way to write a Constitutional Amendment. I’m not the only one who thinks so:
Joseph Larisa, the lawyer who successfully challenged earlier versions of the casino proposal in court, had this response: “Constitutional catastrophe.”
“It is unprecedented in Rhode Island constitutional history, dating back to 1842, to put in the Constitution a special deal for any individual business,” let alone “a tax rate for an individual business,” Larisa said.
And he was not alone. House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox said he also has reservations.
Fox, D-Providence, said he does not object, in principle, to having a public referendum on changing the Constitution to remove what has emerged as a legal barrier to the proposed casino. But he had said he has concerns about the convoluted question Williamson proposes.
“When you keep adding verbiage like that, it looks like it is protectionism or that it is favoring one corporation over another,” Fox said.
“I think the general public is going to raise concerns,” he said. . .
H. Philip West, executive director of the citizens’ advocacy group Common Cause said there is “huge danger” in adding “specific tax figures to the Constitution . . . especially if they are unreasonably low, as I think many will argue these are.”
The thinking behind his concern: “In ten years, to change these numbers and go to higher numbers, it would take a constitutional amendment and I can bet you that Harrah’s will raise and spend enormous amounts of money to prevent any higher tax rate.”
He and Larisa said the proposal would also “gut” the current ban, in the state Constitution, on lawmakers serving on state boards and commission.
Said Larisa: “Before the ink is even dry on the Separation of Powers Amendment, which was a decade-long battle to introduce good government into our three-branch system, this constitutional amendment is proposing to gut it.”
. . . But the sharpest words came predictably from Republican Carcieri who has no power, under law, to veto proposed changes to the Constitution.
Carcieri, who presided over a massive expansion of video-slot gambling, said he continues to believe “a Harrah’s casino would undercut state revenues from Lincoln Park and Newport Grand, would hurt local businesses, and would increase the potential for crime and public corruption.”
Through a spokesman, he also said, he is “particularly disturbed” by the effort to amend the state Constitution and called it “unfortunate that casino proponents continue to try to obscure the fact that Harrah’s Entertainment will actually own the casino, and will reap the majority of the profits.”
“Why do the casino proponents keep trying to conceal the facts about the Harrah’s casino deal, and what else are they hiding?” he mused.