The Rhode Island Senate voted 30-4 on Thursday, June 8, 2023, to pass an amended bill allowing remote access to existing table games at Twin River via a computer or a mobile app. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)
Rhode Island poker players and slot machine enthusiasts may soon be able to skip the drive to Lincoln, and instead play from home.
The Rhode Island Senate on Thursday approved a bill to allow online gambling, or iGaming, by simulcasting table and slot games from Bally’s Twin River casino in Lincoln to players’ phones or laptops. The 30-4 vote came swiftly, with two senators, Providence Democrat Sam Bell and Portsmouth Democrat Linda Ujifusa, speaking in opposition. Democratic Senators Dawn Euer and Lou DiPalma, representing Newport and Middletown respectively, also voted against the bill.
The proposal, introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio on behalf of Bally’s Corp., gives the Rhode Island casino giant exclusive rights to host the online gaming platforms, with IGT as its vendor. Ruggerio framed the expansion as a way to keep Rhode Island competitive with neighboring states while generating money for the state – $210 million more in tax revenue over five years, according to a study commissioned by Bally’s.
“It helps ensure the continued strength of the state facilities in the competitive regional gaming market, and in so doing protects an important revenue stream that provides funding for vital state programs and investments,” Ruggerio said in a statement.
A separate, state-commissioned report by Christiansen Capital Advisors LLC offers a slightly less optimistic forecast, projecting that online gambling would bring in $160 million in extra tax revenue for Rhode Island over the first five years. Assuming equal income over each of those five years, the extra $32 million in revenue represents about 8% of the $388 million Rhode Island Lottery transferred to the state in fiscal 2022, based on table games, video lottery and sports betting.
The legislation approved Thursday was revised from its original form to address constitutional and revenue-sharing concerns raised by the Rhode Island Lottery.
Mark Furcolo, state lottery director, previously warned that the original proposal violated the state constitution because referenda approved by voters in 2012 and 2016, which authorized the casinos at Twin River and Tiverton, respectively, didn’t specifically OK online gambling. The bill now calls for simulcasting the online table games with live dealers from within Twin River to avoid having to put the proposed expansion out to voters.
Mirroring the approach used in other states like New Jersey, the workaround calls for a “miniature casino” – like a mini TV studio – through which games are simulcast to people’s phones, according to Greg Pare, a spokesman for Ruggerio.
In a nod to Furcolo’s concerns that the foray into iGaming would sap money from existing, online lottery games, the revised bill ups the percentage of profits from online slot games returned to the state, from 50% to 61%. However, the share of online table game revenue flowing to state coffers was reduced, slightly, from 18% to 15.5%. (The remainder is split among Bally’s and IGT, except for 1.45% carveout for the towns of Lincoln and Tiverton).
The bill also sets aside an extra $1.3 million to offset additional state revenue losses, while requiring a study to understand how iGaming would impact Rhode Island Lottery games.
Minimum age raised
The updated legislation also increases the age at which gamblers could log in to a phone or laptop to play slots and table games, from 18 to 21. The higher age limit comes in response to concerns by lawmakers, including the House sponsor of the bill, over the proliferation of problem gambling among high school students. This does not affect the existing, 18-plus age for online lottery and sports betting.
The increased age limit did little to sway Bell, who decried the moral consequences of enabling problem gamblers to bet more easily.
“Phones bring a level of addiction you don’t get when you walk into a casino physically,” he said.
Phones bring a level of addiction you don’t get when you walk into a casino physically.
– Sen. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat who was opposed to the iGaming bill
Ujifusa, meanwhile, called for more analysis of the social and economic harms that iGaming could create.
The online slot and table gaming wagers would be accepted only from players who are physically in Rhode Island at the time of their bet. As with all other forms of gambling, the state would retain control of procedures, security, operations and accounting.
Companion legislation by Rep. Gregory Costantino, a Lincoln Democrat, remained held in committee as of Thursday. The House bill does not reflect revisions to age, revenue sharing and simulcasting from casinos.
If approved, the new law would take effect Jan. 1.
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