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RI Senate endorses Newport casino referendum

David Klepper

A proposal to ask Rhode Islanders to authorize casino games at the Newport Grand slot parlor cleared its last major legislative hurdle Wednesday.

The state Senate voted 35-2 to place the question on the fall ballot. The proposed referendum now moves back to the House, which has already endorsed the referendum but must sign off on minor changes made by the Senate.

Newport Grand's owners say they need to offer table games such as poker and blackjack to compete with casinos now authorized in Massachusetts. The Newport City Council earlier this year asked lawmakers to put the referendum on the ballot.

The state Constitution requires casino proposals to be approved by voters statewide and in the host community.

Lawmakers have already scheduled a referendum this fall on authorizing a casino at the Twin River slot parlor in Lincoln.

Supporters in the Senate said Wednesday that the state can't afford to let casinos in Massachusetts eat into revenues from Rhode Island's two slot parlors.

"Someday Rhode Island will wake up and we'll have casinos all around us," said Sen. Juan Pichardo, D-Providence. "Now we just have to hope this (referendum) gets approved."

Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, cast one of only two votes against placing the referendum on the ballot. He said gambling is a "predatory" business and casinos create only a small amount of economic activity. He noted that voters previously have defeated attempts to open casinos in Rhode Island.

"The economic times are different, but I still don't believe this is the right thing for us to be doing," he said.

It will be up to lawmakers to work out the state's share of revenue from any authorized casinos.

Massachusetts lawmakers voted to authorize casinos in November, creating a threat to jobs and state revenue from Rhode Island's two slot parlors.

A study commissioned by Gov. Lincoln Chafee indicates that casinos in Massachusetts could siphon more than $100 million a year from the Rhode Island treasury.

The Associated Press