Worth the gamble?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 16, 2009

Of course, that argument could be more potent than one might expect, he maintains, given the financial difficulties at Twin River and Foxwoods. And besides, he notes, voters who rejected casino gambling last time around could be expected to cleave to the same opinion this time around. But the opposition's real trump card may lie elsewhere.

The constitution requires not only statewide approval of a casino, but local approval as well. And the voters of Lincoln and Newport have made their opposition to full-scale casino gambling clear.

In 2006, Newport voted 3-to-1 against the Harrah's proposal. And the next year, in a non-binding referendum, almost 60 percent of Lincoln voters registered their opposition to a full-scale casino at Twin River.

Political observers consider Newport voters unmovable. Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, mayor of the city, says a casino simply does not comport with Newport's image of itself as a "quaint," seaside community.

Even the prospect of full-scale casinos in Massachusetts or Lincoln, which could destroy Newport Grand's already struggling business and eliminate the city's cut of the slot parlor's proceeds, would not be enough to sway local voters, Napolitano says. "I think the overwhelming feeling in Newport would be, 'No, we don't want it,' " she says.

But Lincoln, observers say, doesn't have the same image concerns. "That town is not Little Compton," says Ray Rickman, a former state representative who worked on the pro-casino campaign in 2006, referring to another coastal town with a quaint disposition. "We can pretend it is, but it isn't."

Even the locals seem to think a well-run casino campaign could hit the jackpot. The recession has made its impact felt in Lincoln, after all. And the town counts on some $5.7 million in annual revenue from Twin River's slot machines — compared to the $650,000 Newport takes in from the much smaller Newport Grand.

"If [Twin River] disappeared, it would be a disaster," says Lincoln town councilman John W. Flynn.

Besides, Flynn notes, a recent shift to 24/7 gaming at the slot parlor hasn't produced the traffic and police calls that many feared.

And Lincoln's non-binding referendum on full-scale casino gambling came during a low-turnout special election, with a disproportionately high number of voters who live in the shadow of Twin River — and have the greatest concerns about traffic — filling out ballots.


THE GAME-CHANGER

That said, Flynn expects local voters would reject a casino if a vote were held today. Indeed, the most direct route to full-scale gambling at Twin River may be through Washington.

In February, in a Rhode Island case known as Carcieri v. Salazar, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot place land in trust — and beyond the reach of local voters and officials — for Indian tribes like the Narragansetts that received federal recognition after 1934.

But Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota and chairman of the Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs, is pushing so-called "Carcieri fix" legislation that would reverse the Supreme Court's decision. And experts like Dennis J. Whittlesey, a Washington lawyer well-versed in Indian affairs, are predicting passage of the bill by the spring.

The legislative push has the Narragansetts talking of a partnership with a well-funded gambling concern that would allow the tribe to buy Twin River, win a federal trust designation, and convert the slot parlor to a casino — bypassing the political process.

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