By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Gaming Bill was passed in the House of Assembly yesterday following months of public debate and controversy over the government’s plans to regulate and tax webshops.
Before the Bill was voted on, Prime Minister Perry Christie told the House the government could generate as much as $30m a year in taxes and other fees on webshops. The government also expects $25m from webshops in penalties and other fees as the sector transitions into a regulated environment, he said.
When the vote was taken, Fort Charlotte MP Dr Andre Rollins was the only PLP MP present who voted ‘no’.
He was joined by the six members of the opposition FNM who were present.
Five MPs were absent for the vote, including PLP’s deputy whip and Bamboo Town MP Renward Wells, Central and South Abaco MP Edison Key (FNM), Central Eleuthera MP Theo Neily (FNM), North Abaco MP Renardo Curry (PLP) and South Abaco MP Picewell Forbes (PLP).
After the Gaming Bill was passed, the members of the opposition left the lower chamber before two pieces of legislation related to the Gaming Bill - the Financial Transactions Reporting Amendment Act 2014 and the Act to Amend the Proceeds of Crime - were passed.
Nearly a month after receiving criticism for his absence from the parliamentary vote on Value Added Tax (VAT), Mr Christie voted ‘yes’ to the Gaming Bill along with 24 other members of his party.
During his nearly two-hour contribution as he wrapped up debate on the Bill, Mr Christie touted the impact revenue generated from gaming operations will have on his government’s efforts to develop educational and health facilities in the country as well as to improve public parks, beaches and green spaces, the promotion of sports, arts and culture and the aid of social initiatives.
Mr Christie said based on unverified information presented by the majority of web shop operators, the government could yield “some $25 million” in penalties, back business licence fees and application fees payable during the transition period when operators will be required to disclose the revenues generated by their operations in the past while paying a variety of fees.
Between $22 million and $29 million is expected to be obtained from gaming taxes, social contributions from businesses and other fees on an annual basis, he said.
He added that an additional $3 million is expected to be added to the public purse in the first year of operation due to the modernisation of casino games, which includes “the introduction of proxy, mobile and interactive gaming,” among other things.
He also insisted that his government has produced legislation that will withstand local and international scrutiny.
As a gesture intended to prove his government’s commitment to ensuring the web shop industry is regulated in a fair and transparent manner, he also tabled a request for proposal (RFP) form which, once publicly released by the Gaming Board, will invite people to apply for gaming house operator and gaming house premises licences.
Mr Christie also referred to the controversy over his government’s decision to ignore the results of last year’s gaming referendum in order to regularise the web shop industry. He emphasised that his views on the matter have changed overtime.
“As I stated recently during the last Budget debate,” he said, “my government’s position on the regularisation of web shop gaming has evolved as a result of certain realities which have emerged, following the outcome of the referendum on this issue. It is misleading and most unfortunate to suggest that the government in proceeding with the regularisation of web shop gaming, is being undemocratic and ignoring the outcome of the low turnout of registered voters in the consultative, nonbinding referendum.
“As explained to religious leaders and others whose views, advice and counsel I greatly respect, the economic, social, law and order, national interest and international obligation realities which have developed, make it absolutely necessary and the right thing for the Government to regularise web shop gaming in the manner being proposed.”
The Gaming Board, which will regulate the new gaming regime in the country, will undergo an extreme make-over, he said.
The legislation also revamps the gaming options offered at hotel-based casinos.
The Gaming Bill will now move to the Senate for debate and a vote before it is passed there and later enacted.