Jan. 23, 2003 – If and when a bill submitted on Wednesday by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to repeal the law allowing video-lottery gambling in the Virgin Islands hits the floor of the 25th Legislature, it may or may not stick.
The 24th Legislature, in its final session, voted to override the governor's third veto of VLT enabling legislation — in this case, a bill to permit video-lottery operations only on St. Thomas and St. John. The 25th Legislature, with five new faces and a Democratic Party majority, is now being asked to reverse that decision.
On Jan. 11, the Democratic Party Territorial Committee publicly called for repeal of the legislation. On Jan. 13, the governor, who is a Democrat, did so in his State of the Territory speech. But the new Legislature's Democratic majority and indeed the whole Senate appear to be split down the middle on the matter.
Members of the current Legislature who voted for the override on Dec. 23 were Senate President David Jones and Sens. Lorraine Berry, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino White. None of them has publicly indicated a change of heart on the issue, and Jones, Berry, Hansen and Donastorg are all members of the majority bloc.
Jones, who has long been a proponent of video gambling, would not comment on the record when asked about the issue. Hansen, who voted both for and against legalizing VLT's in the several times that the issue came before the 24th Legislature, also would not comment on where he currently stands.
The Democratic majority leader, Sen. Douglas Canton, is the only member of this Legislature who voted against overriding the veto on VLT's. He said this week that his position remains the same. He also said that while the Democratic senators may be split on the repeal issue, the purpose of the majority bloc is to form a consensus on issues of common interest and value for moving the Virgin Islands in a positive direction.
The Democratic majority consists of Sens. Berry, Canton, Roosevelt David, Donastorg, Hansen, Louis Hill, Jones, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell.
"I will be consistent in my vote," Canton said. "I feel VLT's look too much like slot machines. When casinos are well established on St. Croix, the climate may be different." He said potential St. Croix investors could be deterred if video lottery operations are introduced even elsewhere in the territory.
Curtis Robinson, the licensee for the largest casino complex planned for the island, the $500 million Seven Hills Beach Resort and Casino at Robin Bay, has said that the legalization of VLT's jeopardizes his prospects for securing financing for his project.
Canton also said the legislation apparently does not restrict the placement of terminals to areas heavily trafficked by tourists.
Legal implications a concern
Not voting on the override issue in the lame-duck session were David, who was absent for the vote, and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who was excused for the day's session.
Jn Baptiste said recently that, while he does not feel that VLT's on St. Thomas and St. John will have the negative impact on St. Croix that people have been led to believe, he will likely support repeal of the legislation. "As long as I can be satisfied that repeal of the law will not incur liability on the part of the government, I would support it," Jn Baptiste said.
One company has apparently been waiting in the wings for more than four years to begin video lottery operations in the territory. Southland Gaming of the V.I., a subsidiary of a mainland firm, was contracted by the V.I. Lottery Commission in 1998 to install and operate the territory's VLT's. Austin Andrews, V.I. Lottery director, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
"Individuals may have begun to invest money based on the passage of the law, and to repeal it may be incurring liability for the government," Jn Baptiste said. "One would have to convince me that we would not be putting the government in legal jeopardy."
He said that if he had been present for the Dec. 23 vote, he would not have supported the override. "I do not support VLT's, period," he said. "We have to be sensitive and responsive to the concerns expressed by folks on St. Croix."
Turnbull, in submitting the repeal legislation, said that public outcry against VLT's that came to a head in 2001 has not subsided and, in fact, seems to be increasing. "The residents of this territory have not expressed a need or a desire for these games," the governor said in his letter to Jones. "In fact, they have indicated otherwise." (See "Governor submits bill to repeal VLT legislation".)
A public demonstration against VLT's is scheduled for Jan. 31 at the Christiansted bandstand on St. Croix.
David did not return telephone calls seeking comment about his position on the matter.
Freshman stands: against, unsure, unknown
One of the freshman members of the Legislature who has been vocal in his stance against the terminals is Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards, leader of the newly formed St. Croix Caucus.
"I sincerely believe they would adversely affect attempts to stimulate the economy on the island of St. Croix by decreasing the potential number of hotel rooms while providing opposition for casino gaming," Richards said recently.
He also took issue with a provision of the law placing VLT operations under the purview of the V.I. Lottery. Because the governor has yet to appoint a Lottery Commission, Andrews as director would be vested with sole authority for overseeing the video lottery industry.
"There is definitely room for legislative change considering a Lottery Commission, given the amount of activity now going on in the lottery," Richards said. He cited the recent addition of Powerball — a multi-state lottery game — as an example.
Richards said the St. Croix Caucus, intended to unify the big island's senators in the advancement of causes supporting of their home constituency, has not met since its initial two sessions held shortly after the November elections.
Another freshman lawmaker from St. Croix, Sen. Luther Renee, said on Thursday that he is undecided on the repeal issue and will meet with players on both sides before making a decision. One of those people is the chair of the Casino Control Commission, Eileen Petersen, who has been staunchly against the video lottery games since talk of them began.
When asked if the volatility of the issue could cause discord among the Senate Democrats, Renee said his colleagues will vote their conscience. "I don't see this displacing the unity we have right now," he said.
Russell, the third new legislator on St. Croix, said this week that he, too, intends to weigh both sides of the issue before making a decision.
The two freshman lawmakers from St. Thomas-St. John, Malone and Hill, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The override of the governor's veto required a two-thirds vote, at least 10 in favor of passage. The governor's repeal bill, on the other hand, requires only a majority vote. Turnbull in his letter Wednesday urged Jones to convene a Committee of the Whole hearing to consider the motion. Jones also has the options of assigning the bill to a committee or not introducing the legislation.

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