By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Gaming Board, which will be expected to regulate a legalised webshop industry and/or National Lottery, has been “under-funded” for many years, with requests for additional monies falling on deaf ears.
Dr Andre Rollins, the Gaming Board’s chairman, told Tribune Business that the regulator had been warning the Ministry of Finance from pre-2008 that it needed more funding to meet its existing casino oversight responsibilities, but without success.
Given that the Gaming Board’s responsibilities could effectively explode from regulating just three casinos on two islands (soon to be four and three islands) to hundreds of webshops on multiple islands, Dr Rollins’ comments raise some questions as to whether it will be able to cope with its expanded responsibilities in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.
Acknowledging that “there is no doubt” that the Gaming Board would need a vast increase in financial resources and manpower beyond its current 135-strong workforce, if Monday’s upcoming poll backed the legalisation of webshop gaming, Dr Rollins said the regulator was developing proposals to support any request for additional funds.
He suggested that, given the Government’s scarce resources, the Bahamas would likely have to follow other nations in requiring webshop operators to finance the Gaming Board’s regulatory costs via a levy on their gross profits.
“Many in the Gaming Board argue that it is under-funded,” Mr Rollins told Tribune Business, adding that there had been “communications from persons in the Finance Department of the Gaming Board making requests of the Ministry of Finance for additional funds.
“This is a situation that has been going on for a number of years. There have been communications between the Gaming Board and the Ministry of Finance asking for more funds to deal with its current needs; not its future needs. The communications indicated the Gaming Board was in need of more funding, but for various reasons that did not materialise.”
Dr Rollins, who is also the PLP MP for Fort Charlotte, said the Gaming Board’s requests for additional financing “go back several years”.
He added that they pre-dated both the Christie administration’s assumption of office in May 2012, and the 2008-2009 recession.
Detailing just how critical the Gaming Board’s role would be if the upcoming ‘poll’ resulted in a ‘Yes’ vote, Dr Rollins said it would be tasked with not only regulating webshop patrons but the operators themselves.
Apart from ensuring all abided by whatever laws and regulations were developed for webshop gaming, the Gaming Board chairman said it would also be tasked with analysing operators’ financial statements to ensure they were paying due taxes to the Treasury.
“While we talk about a potential increase in government revenues from a ‘Yes’ vote, it has to be appreciated that the Gaming Board has to ensure the Government gets what’s due to it - that there’s full compliance by the gaming operators with the rate of taxation; that they’re properly reporting,” Dr Rollins told Tribune Business.
“It’s not just a matter of patrons abiding by the law, but ensuring there’s compliance by the operators with tax regulations.
“There’s the auditing associated with it. There’s already some concern that the Government is not going to be obtaining the type of tax dividend it may be expecting.”
While declining to put a dollar figure on the extra financing the Gaming Board would need in the event of a web shop gaming/National Lottery ‘Yes’ vote, or the additional employees it would need, Dr Rollins said the regulator was currently developing a formula to determine this.
He explained that extra financing and personnel would be determined by the size of any industry that the Government wanted the Gaming Board to regulate, and the formula would match these needs to the additional responsibilities.
“All of these things are being considered at the moment,” Dr Rollins told Tribune Business, “in terms of what may need to be requested from government in terms of extra funding.
“What would be needed to support the additional manpower requirements that come with a ‘Yes’ vote, what would be needed in terms of additional equipment to assist in the oversight of these operations.
“The Gaming Board managers are trying to put together written recommendations to the technocrats in the Ministry of Finance to support the requests for additional funding.”
Currently, the Gaming Board regulates just the Atlantis and Baha Mar casinos in New Providence, plus the Treasure Bay operation at the Grand Lucayan in Freeport. They will soon be joined by a fourth casino in the shape of the Genting/RAV Bahamas joint venture at Bimini Bay.
Dr Rollins, noting the implications of a ‘Yes’ vote for the Gaming Board, said: “The nature of web shop operations or a National Lottery if they were to pass would cause the proliferation of gaming to reach every inhabited island in the Bahamas.
“The Gaming Board’s role as regulator would touch every island we’re not currently engaged with.”
This, Dr Rollins, would result in increased travel costs for Gaming Board personnel, plus “increased technical needs” such as video conferencing and surveillance equipment, so the regulator could see what was going on in web shops in remote Family Islands.
“All these things come with a cost,” he added. The Gaming Board chairman suggested that the Bahamas needed to ‘take a leaf out of the book’ of other jurisdictions, which dedicated a percentage of the industry - or National Lottery’s - gross take to financing the costs of regulating them.