By ANDRE ROLLINS, MP
Bahamas Gaming Board chairman
AS WE go to the polls to decide on whether we will support the regulation and taxation of web shop gaming and/or the establishment of a national lottery, as chairman for the Gaming Board of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, I wish to share the following considerations and implications of the upcoming gaming referendum.
Firstly, gaming is either legal or illegal. Some would argue that gaming should be either legal and open to all, or illegal and open to none.
Our existing gaming legislation does not support this argument as it gives visitors rights to gamble that are not granted to Bahamians, permanent residents and work permit holders currently residing in the Bahamas.
Secondly, we cannot permit any industry to operate outside the purview of the law, and without proper regulation and oversight. Currently a substantial amount of gaming occurs in the Bahamas without proper regulation and oversight.
If Bahamians wish to have access to gaming as a form of entertainment it must be understood that it is unacceptable for it to continue in an unregulated manner. The position of this government must be clear: We cannot regulate the sector in part; it must be regulated as a whole.
To continue to allow gaming houses in the Bahamas to exist without appropriate regulatory controls creates the potential for the infiltration of and control by criminal entities, which could very easily produce adverse domestic and international consequences.
Our nation’s financial regulatory regime and the reporting requirements it imposes on businesses engaged in financial services, cannot be effective if it ignores a large group of businesses which conduct significant financial transactions.
This is critical for our country if we wish to maintain our standing as a responsible financial services jurisdiction compliant with international anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism best practices.
Our country must be seen to be continuing along a progressive path of reform not just in the eyes of the international community, but also in the eyes of our citizens. The government cannot be perceived as being guilty of engendering a culture where laws are selectively observed and applied; where law enforcement and not justice is blind.
The government must be aggressive in bringing all local gaming operations into conformity with the laws governing gaming – laws that promote high standards for participation in the industry by the owners, vendors, employees and patrons of all gaming establishments and which create safeguards to protect the interests of the gaming and non-gaming public alike.
Currently, lawful gaming regimes exist throughout the Caribbean in Barbados, Anguilla, St Maarten, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, the US Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent and Belize.
A regional operator with a presence in each of these countries reports that existing underground gaming enterprises existed in all of them before the introduction of lawful regimes and the regulated operations all survived despite concerns that they would be undermined by fears of the impact taxation would have on operator revenue and/or player winnings.
The expansion of the Bahamas’ regulatory regime to cover gaming by locals would create a new recurrent revenue stream for the government. To be consistent with the practices of respected gaming jurisdictions around the world, the government must clearly outline “good causes” that would be funded by this voluntary tax.
Examples of identified “good causes” in other jurisdictions are: education (schools and scholarships), healthcare, senior citizens, the disabled, youth programmes, arts, culture, historic preservation, sports (Olympics), capital improvements, economic revitalisation programmes, public safety, public transportation and public housing.
Should the majority of Bahamians vote no to both questions it will be an expression of the public’s wish to deny Bahamians the right to participate in local gaming except as employees of the hotel-based casinos.
Based on the long history of Bahamian participation in games of chance and the recognition that historical legal restrictions precipitated the creation of illegal gaming enterprises, it is inevitable that the demand for such activity will persist beyond January 28 even in the face of a no vote.
The difference is that the government will be under greater pressure to use its law enforcement resources to respond to illegal gaming – resources that are scarce and themselves under increasing pressure to address the scourge of violent crime affecting parts of our country.
While it has admittedly taken far too long for any government to muster the political will and courage to police this unregulated activity and despite the fact that preparation for this referendum has been an awkward and untidy process, it cannot be argued that 50-plus years is insufficient time to know whether or not something should be regulated or taxed for the benefit of our country and people.
The alternative is to yield to the calls to postpone this process and risk perpetuating government that is irresponsible and a society that is ungovernable.