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MPs pass gaming legislation after heated debate

Legislation specifying the finance minister’s responsibility over gaming was passed by MPs yesterday.

There was a heated debate over whether the move would finally deliver the long-awaited industry to the island.

David Burt, the Premier, told the House of Assembly that the Bill marked a final amendment addressing the concerns that had been raised in 2020 by a local bank over the implementing of a Bermuda casino industry.

Mr Burt noted that a potential conflict of interest raised when he as Premier had also held the portfolio for tourism was resolved when he handed tourism over to another minister.

Mr Burt added that having an integrated resort model set for gaming in Bermuda had been a “flaw” in existing legislation.

The amendment will give the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission the flexibility to rewrite the obligations imposed on casino operators.

But those powers would have to accord with obligations including regulations for anti-money laundering and antiterrorist financing, as well as “problem and responsible gaming”.

Jarion Richardson, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, said the commission wielding such powers could have “damning consequences”.

The Premier said: “This is in regards to a casino operator – key point – it is nothing in regards to someone who is making an application to operate a casino … This is not anything about those types of checks and balances prior to the licence of the casino.”

Cole Simons, the Leader of the Opposition, called on Mr Burt to “get the gaming solution correct” – noting there had been repeated statements in 2021 by Mr Burt that casino gaming was imminent.

He said the Opposition supported bringing the industry to the island, but added: “The question is, when will we have gaming in Bermuda?”

The Premier said: “This government will do everything in our power to deliver on our 2020 election manifesto pledge to launch a casino gaming industry here in Bermuda.”

Mr Simons spoke of “a failure to deliver this amenity to the St Regis, and the Hamilton Princess Hotel who were frustrated by the whole process and withdrew their application”.

He added that $6 million had gone into loans and grants to the BCGC since its inception.

Mr Simons said the commission had 11 employees but appeared to have no commissioners with specialist experience in developing a gaming industry.

He also questioned whether Mr Burt planned to hand over the portfolio of finance to another minister.

Government backbencher Zane DeSilva responded that the Premier had not pledged gaming would take off in Bermuda in 2021 but instead had expressed “hope” it would materialise.

The Premier said: “That was my understanding at the time … but clearly that is not the case – you know why? Because I do not control the Casino Gaming Commission.”

Mr DeSilva defended the make-up of the BCGC, adding: “I think they make up a pretty good team.”

Craig Cannonier, the Shadow Minister of Public Works and Tourism, said Bermuda’s conservatism had allowed time to go by while Caribbean resorts brought gaming to fruition, a sentiment echoed by Christopher Famous, Progressive Labour Party MP.

Mr Cannonier added: “It’s apparent and clear that banking was the issue and continues to be the issue.”

He highlighted “challenges” with corresponding banks overseas.

“The question really is, and we’re hoping to hear from the Premier, does he believe this is going to move us closer to a casino?”

Mr Cannonier told the House that the last thing the island needed was another frustrated hotel.

He also highlighted that Bermuda had a different finance minister than Mr Burt at the time the concern over specifying that ministry’s responsibility for gaming had been raised.

Anthony Richardson, of the PLP, said the delays in implementing gaming were themselves a reflection of the independence of the commission.

Mr Richardson called for the Opposition to “get off the fence and give wholehearted support”.

But Opposition MP Scott Pearman responded: “The leader of the Government should have no direct involvement with casino gaming.”

He added: “If the Premier, having passed this legislation, decides he no longer is going to be finance minister, then we will see.”

Mr Pearman said the Bill would solve nothing.

“The only games that seem to be played are the games around this room,” he said.

The Premier continuously asked Mr Pearman how he appeared to know more than the ministry or the Minister of Finance.

“At no point in time has anyone represented to the Government that the issue is who is in charge of gaming,” the Premier said.

Mr Pearman said: “I invite the Premier to name one jurisdiction where the person responsible for the Government of that country is also responsible for casino gaming. The answer is none.”

The Premier said the perception that there would be political interference came from “the combined opposition” including what he called the Opposition’s “mouthpiece” The Royal Gazette in its reporting on the issue.

Mr Burt added: “Ministers are not involved in operations, decisions, regulatory items or anything else – their role is spelled out in law … The insinuation of interference in the operations of regulatory agencies is damaging for the jurisdiction.”

Jamahl Simmons, a PLP backbencher, said the issue of reluctant support from banking institutions had been a challenge for successive ministers. He said: “It’s key that for this to succeed the one bank has to work with the one government.”

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs and Deputy Premier, said it was important for the banking industry to “operate in the country’s interest”.

Jason Hayward, the Minister of Economy and Labour, added: “We meet the bank’s conditions … that is still not going to be good enough …

“I am now hearing that the challenges are the Premier. The banks didn’t indicate that they had a challenge with the Premier in their conditions, they simply asked for the portfolio to be moved to Ministry of Tourism’s portfolio to the Ministry of Finance’s portfolio.

“That change has been made so if there is a question or concern with the Premier overseeing casino gaming in Bermuda the banks should make that explicitly clear. If you set out conditions and we meet the conditions, it is the expectation that the next step is that we discuss how we can make gaming in Bermuda a reality.”

To read the legislation in full, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.

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Published March 25, 2023 at 7:56 am (Updated March 25, 2023 at 8:09 am)

MPs pass gaming legislation after heated debate

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