Saipan gaming bill shot down-again - Wednesday 30th of April 2008

The House of Representatives has killed the fourth and latest Saipan gaming bill.

With 16 no votes and two yes votes, the lower chamber rejected the proposal to allow casino gaming at the former La Fiesta shopping mall.

Rep. Oscar M. Babauta and Rep. Stanley T. Torres voted in favor of the proposal. Representatives Justo Quitugua and Raymond Palacios were present, but did not vote.

The measure, titled the “Video Gaming and Entertainment Card Games Act of 2008,” was the fourth La Fiesta gaming bill to get the ax since last election, when voters junked the casino initiative for Saipan.

The bill proposed to allow video lottery terminals, as well as Texas Hold’em poker, black jack and baccarat games, to be operated at La Fiesta.

Babauta, the sponsor of the bill, is disappointed by the action of his colleagues. He said a limited gaming industry, as proposed in the bill, would have gone a long way to easing the current economic crisis.

“Every single session [of the Legislature], we debate where to get the money to keep the government running. So I have come up with this brilliant idea to provide for limited gaming. The benefits will go not only to my precinct, but to the entire CNMIs coffers. But my colleagues failed to recognize this,” Babauta said.

He said there is a local business interested in investing at least $20 million on gaming operations at La Fiesta. He added that the investor is willing to pay an additional $20 million in advance taxes.

Further, Babauta said, the proposal would allow the government to recoup what it paid for the La Fiesta, which is now sitting idle.

In 2003, the CNMI government bought La Fiesta for $7.5 million. A portion of the purchase price, $3.5 million, was paid by the Governors Office under the Babauta administration. The remaining balance was to be paid in $200,000 annual installments.

But Rep. Diego Benavente said no amount of argument would change the fact that Saipan voters rejected casinos in November 2007.

“When the people voted on the casino, they knew how much revenue casinos generate. They knew about Macao, they knew about Las Vegas. They were suffering in the economic crisis. But still they said no, because they also knew what negative effects casinos would have on the community. As their representatives, we are obligated to respect their decision,” Benavente said.

He added that Saipan must support Tinian and Rota, both of which have approved casinos.

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