While pension system reform is the issue of the day (actually for another day in the fall, as it looks now), there is another issue of importance to the financial future of the Ocean State, and that is Twin River. Keeping in mind that the state receives over $250 million a year in revenue from the Lincoln slots parlor and its Newport counterpart, Newport Grand, securing Twin River’s future in the face of likely emerging competition from Massachusetts is of critical importance. Doing that requires allowing the facility to graduate to a full gaming venue complete with table games.
Massachusetts came close last legislative session to getting into the casino business, but a deal fell apart in the end over differences between Governor Deval Patrick’s vision of gaming in the Bay State (casinos but no racinos) and the Massachusetts legislature’s position (casinos and racinos). This year on Beacon Hill in Boston they’re at it again, except that this time around the two sides appear to be closer to ironing out a compromise that would permit some racino activity. We could soon see Governor Patrick signing, not vetoing, gaming legislation that would immediately affect the future financial health of Twin River and, by direct extension, the state of Rhode Island.
That’s because many day gamblers come to Lincoln and Newport from Massachusetts. Clyde Barrow of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has estimated the number of gamblers who, with casinos and racinos closer to home, would no longer visit the Rhode Island facilities, and how much money they would spend staying in Massachusetts. It could end up costing our state millions in lost revenue – revenue the state desperately needs as it struggles to keep itself afloat considering its pension troubles.
There are two especially dangerous things for Rhode Island about a Massachusetts move into gaming. One is that putting slots into racinos like Plainridge Racecourse in nearby Plainville by the Wrentham Factory Outlets, to cite one racino location, is that slot machines can be up and running in just 90 days. The other danger comes from the fact that Massachusetts doesn’t need to gain approval to permit gaming legislation via a referendum. In Rhode Island we the people get to decide. Take no referendum required and add the speed in which racinos can start competing against our two facilities and we face the prospect of virtual overnight development of new competition for gambling dollars.
There are strong arguments being made to allow the racino mix into the Massachusetts equation. The racing industry is in the doldrums these days and argues that without the infusion of gaming in the form of slots they’ll eventually go out of business. And racinos in states like Pennsylvania and New York are reporting increased gaming revenues in recent years, in contrast to “destination casinos” like Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun which have struggled of late.
While most people seem to agree that allowing Twin River to have gaming tables is not a big deal (the facility is already operating 24 hours a day), and would provide new jobs, there are unresolved issues to decide, namely the matter of licensing rights and how much of a revenue take Rhode Island can receive from monies lost at the tables – it’s nowhere near the sixty-one cents out of every losing dollar we get from the slot machines. These unresolved issues forced then Governor Don Carcieri to veto last year’s legislation, which otherwise would have permitted Rhode Islanders to vote on Twin River expansion in last November’s election.
Now, based on bills filed in the General Assembly, we will have to wait until November of 2012 to vote on a final referendum question, presuming the licensing and gaming tables revenue issues have been settled. This delay will permit Massachusetts’ timetable, should the state decide to enter the fray, to overtake us. That won’t be good for Twin River’s future nor the state’s.