Casino Amendment: Some Constitutional Context
The debate was entertaining, but eventually the RI House pushed through a ballot question asking the RI voters to amend [PDF] the RI Constitution to allow a privately owned casino in West Warwick. The Constitution already makes provisions for the public to vote on the expansion of state-operated “lotteries,” but, as was reinforced last summer by the RI Supreme Court, the Constitution makes no provision for a private entity.
Therefore, assuming the Senate approves the House bill (a fait accompli), the RI voters will be able to decide for themselves if they want to change their Constitution to allow a private entity to run a gambling operation in the state. The Constitutional Amendment route was probably the only way to go about this, but it was unnecessary to include a specific town (West Warwick) in the actual amendment. (Though, I’d be open to the argument for keeping the requirement that any private gaming interest work in concert with Narragansetts.)
In fact, the specific inclusion of West Warwick as the only site for a private casino poses the greatest Constitutional question for this Amendment. Specifically, with the Equal Protection clause (Article I, Section 2) in mind, the question must be asked (and I’m not being rhetorical): Is it fair to designate one town for such “special treatment” within the State’s Constitution? For that matter, given the deal made between the Narragansett Tribe and the State in 1978, is the tribe due such special consideration?
Here are some relevant particulars regarding the Amendment:
The Amendment will be appended as Section 23 to Article VI [Of The Legislative Powers], which already deals with gambling in Section 15 and Section 22. Section 15 states:
Lotteries – All lotteries shall be prohibited in the state except lotteries operated by the state and except those previously permitted by the general assembly prior to the adoption of this section, and all shall be subject to the proscription and regulation of the general assembly.
Section 22 states:
Restriction of gambling. — No act expanding the types of gambling which are permitted within the state or within any city or town therein or expanding the municipalities in which a particular form of gambling is authorized shall take effect until it has been approved by the majority of those electors voting in a statewide referendum and by the majority of those electors voting in a referendum in the municipality in which the proposed gambling would be allowed.
The secretary of state shall certify the results of the statewide referendum and the local board of canvassers of the city or town where the gambling is to be allowed shall certify the results of the local referendum to the secretary of state.
The (new) Section 23 would read:
Resort Casino – – Notwithstanding sections 15 and 22 of this Article, and provided that a majority of the electors of the Town of West Warwick have voted to approve this
amendment, the establishment of a resort casino and games located therein is authorized in the Town of West Warwick. The resort casino shall be privately owned and privately operated by a business entity established pursuant to Rhode Island law by the Narragansett Indian Tribe and its chosen partner, which entity shall be: (i) legally distinct and separate from the Narragansett Indian Tribe, (ii) subject to the laws of the state of Rhode Island, including regulation and taxation, and (iii) required in its organizing documents to expressly waive any sovereign immunity relating to any and all matters of the resort casino, including compliance with and enforcement of the laws of the state of Rhode Island, and the regulation and taxation thereof. The per annum tax rate shall be established by the general assembly with all of such tax proceeds to be dedicated to property-tax relief, as prescribed by statute.