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Casino Gaming Act is passed

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[LAYOUT-220100510022857000-168,821,313,841-\LAYOUT] Gambling or gaming

Legislation to introduce casino gaming to the Island was passed in the House of Assembly in the early hours of this morning.

The debate drew mixed reviews but was finally agreed upon with two mirno amendments at 1:45am after about ten hours of discussion.

The Casino Gaming Act 2014 tabled by Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell drew cautious support from some Opposition Progressive Labour Party members, along with a number of attacks on the One Bermuda Alliance’s record — particularly the party’s abandonment of a promised referendum.

Opening the debate, Mr Crockwell told the House he was confident casino gaming was right for Bermuda and that most Bermudians supported the legalisation of gaming in Bermuda, although he acknowledged that the subject remained a sensitive and emotive issue for some.

“The Bill we seek to pass represents a significant and critical adjustment to our tourism product and Bermuda as a destination,” Mr Crockwell said, noting the general decline of the tourism industry since the 1980s. “In the past 30 years, Bermuda has moved from a tourism industry leader to an industry outsider.”

The Minister said that while casino gaming would not be a panacea for Bermuda tourism, it would serve as a catalyst for job creation and investment in the industry.

He also told the House that there had been “extensive” public consultation, noting that three public forums were held and a recording of one of these, held in St George’s, was broadcast “continuously” on television.

Mr Crockwell added that the legislation would be “substantially augmented” in the future by regulations.

Later in the evening, he hinted that only guests staying at a casino hotel would be permitted to use the casino’s facilities

During his answers in the House, the Minister said that more details about the issue would materialise in the regulations.

The legislation specifies that no more than three casinos can be in operation at a single time, but that the Minister can, after consultation with the Casino Gaming Commission, select more than three sites as being suitable for a casino.

During his speech, the Minister thanked former Premier Ewart Brown for his efforts to move the issue of casino gaming forward, noting particularly the Green Paper on Gaming.

Shadow Tourism Minister Zane DeSilva said he supported the legislation, but attacked the OBA for reversing their decision to hold a referendum on the topic.

“Not only did they break their promise, but they also tried to mislead, and succeeded in misleading the people of Bermuda by stating that they cancelled the referendum because they heard that the PLP were going to undermine it,” he said.

Mr DeSilva said the claims were later shown to be false, and the OBA were blaming the PLP for their change of heart, saying the Government lacked the fortitude to stand by their election pledge.

The Shadow Minister repeatedly claimed the Minister would be involved in deciding who would receive licences, but Mr Crockwell on multiple occasions denied the suggestion as misleading.

“If he doesn’t designate a site, a certificate cannot be issued,” Mr DeSilva responded. “Oh what a tangled web we weave.”

He questioned the limit of three casinos, asking what would happen if all three were issued and then a world-class developer wanted to come to Bermuda to build an integrated hotel and casino.

“What do we tell him? That we’ve reached our limit?” he asked. “That needs to be considered.”

Mr DeSilva also suggested allowing members of the public to purchase shares in the casino in the Bermuda Stock Market, or requiring a certain percentage of casino staff to be Bermudian to allow more locals to benefit.

He also called for some of the revenues from the casinos to be allocated to sports, education and health care to further serve the community.

OBA MP Mark Pettingill noted that a previous lease for the Club Med property, issued to developer Carl Bazarian by the PLP, included a clause guaranteeing Mr Bazarian permission to erect a casino should Government change the law to allow them.

He described such an action as “fundamentally dangerous”, and that OBA had worked to develop an effective, fair and transparent regime with proper checks and balances in Bermuda.

“Nobody has a licence yet. And people want to come and build,” he said. “There are no guarantees to get a licence. None.”

Shadow Immigration Minister Walton Brown said he would make a conscience vote in favour of the bill yet voiced his disappointment over the failed referendum.

He expressed a desire for more than just three casino licenses to be issued at any given time and said he had hoped that casinos could be built as stand-alone businesses rather than being integrated into existing or new hotels.

“I appreciate the concept is to facilitate the development of hotels, we certainly need more hotels … but this excludes the possibility of a stand-alone casino … I am thinking about Front Street.

“In this legislation there is absolutely no opportunity whatsoever for there to be a casino to be in a venue that is not a hotel. I would encourage the Minister to contemplate some kind of amendment going forward — that could be a wonderful iconic site … That could be a draw.”

Shadow Minister of Economic Development, Wayne Furbert, and Shadow Minister for Labour Relations and Seniors, Derrick Burgess, offered a perspective from “the Bible belt”.

Mr Furbert said it was the “saddest days of my career in politics” as the Bill was set to be passed despite the broken promise of the OBA for a referendum.

He said that casinos could attract the likes of pole dancers and prostitution, as has happened elsewhere. He also suggested that casinos in Bermuda could enhance the gang violence already present.

“Why can’t we structure our island around something that is more wholesome?” he asked.

Shadow Finance Minister David Burt noted that the UBP had voted against the gaming Green Paper in 2010, but were now in full support of gaming, describing the UBP vote as an example of a party trying to score a political victory rather than representing their constituents.

“When it came to supporting issues that could have created jobs and investment, they were against it,” he said. “The situation was no less desperate four-and-a-half years ago.”

Mr Burt quoted the Hansard recordings from that debate, in which Finance Minister Bob Richards said the proposal was not morally defensible, while Education Minister Grant Gibbons called it “the wrong direction”.

Mr Richards responded that he was commenting on a paper which proposed no regulations — something Mr Burt refuted — while the legislation before the House was a robust, well considered plan.

“A lot has changed in four years,” he said.

“We have done our homework here, and I remind the honourable member that a lot of PLP members didn’t vote for that particular gambit.”

Opposition Leader Marc Bean said the Government had shown themselves to be the worst in modern history, describing the legislation as rife with corruption.

He noted the OBA’s allegations that the PLP had threatened to derail the gaming referendum, saying that as a result there would be no form of collaboration.

While he said he fully supported gaming, he would not be voting in favour of the “piecemeal legislation”.

•More coverage of the debate will be updated soon.

Casino gaming legislation was debated in the House of Assembly on Friday
Minister of Tourism and Transport, Shawn Crockwell, told the House of Assembly he was confident casino gaming was the right thing for Bermuda (File Photo by Akil Simmons)