Dec. 24, 2002 – Although Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has vetoed it three times in as many years, legislation allowing video lottery terminals to operate in the territory turned up again like a bad penny on Monday at the 24th Legislature's final session, where it garnered the 10 votes needed to override the most recent veto, last February.
Introduced by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., the controversial measure quickly received the necessary votes to make video lottery operations legal in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
For background on the previous attempts to open the territory to video lotteries, see "Video lottery loses again; UVI tech park OK's".
In August 2001, the second time Turnbull vetoed the idea, he did so after his office was flooded with irate calls protesting the introduction of VLT's. At the time, Rina Jacobs McBrowne, Government House spokeswoman, said: "The calls are angry and short. They say they don't want them — ever — and that they will bring no additional money to the territory."
Last January, the third time the Legislature approved video lottery gaming, it restricted the operations to the St. Thomas-St. John district in an effort to placate critics on St. Croix, the only island in the territory where casino gambling is legal. In February, in vetoing that version as well, Turnbull said that "the public outcry against this type of gambling has not subsided, nor does the attempt to limit it to the St. Thomas-St. John district mitigate its shortcomings."
Further, the governor said then in a letter to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd: "I will not approve video lottery so long as it poses a threat to the development of casino gaming and hotel construction on St. Croix. If the members of the Legislature choose to willfully destroy the casino industry on the island of St. Croix, they will have to do so over my veto. They and only they will have to be held accountable."
Many critics say video lottery operations will lead to juvenile gambling, because the terminals are unregulated and can be located anywhere in unsupervised areas — for instance, at gas stations.
Bernie Burkholder, an executive officer of Treasure Bay Corp. and its subsidiary, Treasure Bay VI Corp., which leases the Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino from its owner, Grapetree Shores Inc., and operates the St. Croix property, is vehemently against VLT's.
When the Senate approved enabling legislation last year, Burkholder said he was "shell-shocked that this piece of legislation was passed, and the manner in which it was passed, in the middle of the night, buried under the covers."
Turnbull in February pronounced video lottery gaming "contrary to the strict regulatory scheme set forth in the Casino Control Act of 1995."
Burkholder said then that Eileen Petersen, the Casino Control Commission chair, and the whole commission and the governor "have been so reputable to deal with. The Casino Control Act is very well thought out. It is the watchdog for the gaming commission, and that is why the V.I. is recognized as the legitimate destination it is. You can't have instability in this business."
Treasure Bay put expansion plans for the property on hold at least while the VLT issue was raging last year. Recently, Divi was directed by the Casino Control Commission to proceed with a planned 50-room expansion, something Burkholder has said the hotel doesn't need. He said he would ask the commission for a waiver of the six-month deadline it gave for the work to be carried out.
The big problem, Burkholder said last year, is that VLT's are unregulated. He said they encourage underage gambling and gambling addiction, and "there is no way you can adequately regulate them … They are indistinguishable from slot machines, except one spits out coins, and the other spits out tickets."
Experience has shown that lottery terminals contribute to destroying neighborhoods, Burkholder said, because the owner of, say, a nice restaurant and bar will suddenly lose interest in maintaining his previous standard of service — because his profits from the VLT's are so much greater. And the establishment will deteriorate as a direct result.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II, who had voted against the VLT's earlier, said his affirmative vote on Monday was tied to the territory's need for cash flow and the fact that video lottery games could contribute some ready money. "Right now, you re hearing the government is hurting for revenues, and with the Caribbean Lottery machine and the Powerball, the VLT's are no different," he said.
Petersen has spoken out publicly and strongly against VLT's, calling them the "crack cocaine" of gambling. With the commission office closed on Tuesday for the yearend holidays, Petersen could not be reached for comment on the Senate's latest action. Messages left for Burkholder were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon.
Voting for the override were Sens. Lorraine Berry, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Emmett Hansen, David Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Norma Pickard-Samuel and White. Voting against were Sens. Adelbert Bryan, Douglas Canton and Vargrave Richards. Sen. Roosevelt David was absent for the vote, and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was excused.
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