Five months after act passed, casino regulations still to be formulated - Tuesday 19th of June 2007

Exactly five months after the government used its majority to rush an amendment to legalise casino gambling through Parliament, despite resistance from the religious community and the parliamentary opposition, the regulations to govern the operationalising of casinos are still to be formulated.

In addition, the gaming authority to monitor and regulate casino gambling is still to be established.

Meanwhile, policy makers in neighbouring Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago have begun to take action to either curtail casino gambling or to ban it altogether.

Asked recently how many businesses have applied for casino licences, Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee, under whose office the regulations are to be formulated, told the Stabroek News he did not know since that issue was being dealt with by the Guyana Office for Investment (Go-Invest).

He had told this newspaper prior to Guyanas hosting of six matches in the Super Eight series of Cricket World Cup (CWC) 2007 that after the sporting event he would direct his attention to the establishment of the gaming authority.

Asked last week about the establishment of the gaming authority, Rohee said no one has been identified so far for a gaming authority. He could not give a time frame within which casinos would become operable locally.

To date, Stabroek News understands, Buddys International Hotel is the lone facility in the country that has built a facility for casino gambling.

Stabroek News was aware that there had been some interest by at least two businesses, including the Buddys International Hotel, in providing gaming facilities mainly for tourists. The other was identified for Region Nine (Upper Essequibo/ Upper Takutu).

In March 2005, President Bharrat Jagdeo had indicated to members of the religious community, who were opposed to gaming, that significantly large investments in the tourism and hospitality industries could only be justified by such means of entertainment as casino gambling.

When asked in February when the gaming authority would be set up, Jagdeo had said it would be after CWC and prior to the opening of a casino. "I cant tell you when that would happen. I cant say when an actual casino may be opened up because it may take six months to get up to the service requirement. It may take a bit longer with some new hotels," he had said.

Even though he had told the media at the dedication ceremony of the Guyana National Stadium at Providence that casino legislation would be enacted in time for CWC 2007, he had said it was "not true" that the legislation was meant to accommodate Buddys International Hotel for CWC as was reported in the media. He had said it was meant to attract investment by large hotels in the country.

Tax hike

Meanwhile, an article in the Caribbean Net News reported on May 26 that the Suriname government has submitted a bill to Parliament to increase taxes on casinos by 300% in an attempt to regulate the industry. It is a move that casino owners there said would seriously harm the industry.

According to the debate in the Surinamese Parliament, there are 21 casinos licensed to operate with claims that 16 are violating their licences. Parliamentarians have suggested shutting down those in violation. The association of casino owners (VCS) has said that only 13 of the 21 licensed are in operation.

The number licensed is seen as too many for Surinames population of 490,000. Guyanas gaming legislation which was amended in January to facilitate casino gambling makes provision for three casinos in each of the countrys ten administrative regions, which is equivalent to 30 casinos for Guyanas population of about 750,000.

Net News quoted the VCS Board Secretary Kathleen Brandon as saying that the proposed tax increase would force all casinos to close since they would be unable to make enough income to pay the higher tax. She said there were several, which were currently barely able to pay the taxes. Casinos are required to pay US$145 for each slot machine; US$1,450 for each roulette table and US$1,090 for a blackjack table a month.

Former president and now opposition leader Jules Wijdenbosch, under whose term in office the 21 casinos were licensed as part of a larger plan to boost the tourism sector, has suggested that instead of presenting new laws the government should establish a casino gaming board.

Meanwhile, T&T Finance Minister Conrad Enill last month told the Trinidad Guardian that before the countrys next budget was presented the government would crack down on casinos and implement measures to further restrict their operations or extinguish their businesses altogether.

While these measures, which Prime Minister Patrick Manning had announced in the 2007 Budget, have taken "a bit longer than planned" Enill said they were still on the agenda. He said it could not have been done immediately or the gaming industry would have been totally destroyed. The shutting down of casinos would affect 6,000 employees directly and some 7,000 from support sectors.

Casinos unwanted in T&T

Stating categorically in October 2006 that the government did not want casinos in T&T, Manning had said that emerging trends in casino-type gaming activities were of great concern to the administration, especially its rapid spread in urban and rural communities. He had observed too that global research had shown that the industry could destroy the financial security of families, negatively impact marriages, encourage deviant behaviour among children, undermine work ethic, cause an increase in crime including money laundering and give rise to problem gamblers.

On that occasion, he announced the immediate ban on the importation and use of all slot machines and called for the enforcement of the Gambling and Betting Act and for private members clubs to operate within the confines of the law. He stated also that gambling activities that involved payments to "the house" would no longer be allowed and announced a move to eliminate the National Lotteries Control Boards (NLCB) entire online gaming system.

Mannings pronouncements caused the gaming sector to quickly form an Association of Members Clubs (AMC), which called on the government to rethink the measures. Casino workers protested but Manning restated the governments position and reiterated that the industry would be restructured to comply with the law and eventually phased out through a retraining process to cushion job losses.

Since then, according to the Guardian, 25 clubs that recently met reported that it was business as usual with casinos flourishing and new ones opening, including Club Avenue 5, which announced its opening in a half page advertisement in the Trinidad Express on May 16, 2007. A number of new investors have applied for licences with objections coming mainly from the AMC.

The Finance Minister has said that the operation of private members clubs was not illegal but casino operations were against the law. Meantime the AMC has said, in a commitment to the government, that there would be no expansion in the advertising of casinos; no expansion in their operations; and they would replace staff but not engage in large-scale hiring.

The AMC has said that those still taking the chance to open new clubs may be gambling on the belief that budgetary measures are seldom implemented or they take a long time to be implemented.

Enill said, "There is a programme by which, step by step, we are moving to deal with it," adding that "these things didnt just happen overnight and the solution isnt going to happen overnight."

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