When the Department of Justice rewrote its interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act in 2011, a number of legislators rushed to their state capitols and started hammering out ways to pass online gambling bills.
One state that looked into online gambling was Rhode Island, which set up an exploratory committee.
Nothing ever came of that precursor to a precursor to a bill, but Rhode Island Lottery Director Gerald S. Aubin made some interesting comments about online gambling that appeared in the Providence Journal this week.
Aubin’s comments are just shy of being against online gambling, but Aubin sees the matter of regulated online poker as a legislative problem, not a moral or economic issue.
Aubin feels online lottery sales would cannibalize the state’s brick and mortar lottery outlets and simply wouldn’t bring in enough revenue to cover the costs to startup and oversee online lottery sales, but Aubin doesn’t seem to have this same concern regarding online poker and other casino games.
For those he cites a different obstacle.
Aubin told the Providence Journal that he thinks online poker would bring in substantial revenue, but implementing it would require a statewide vote and a change to the state’s constitution.
“We wouldn’t pursue it without statewide approval,” he said. “To venture into online poker and online gaming would take constitution [sic] approval.”
Based on his comments, it would appear that online lottery sales would be off the table (unless RI implemented a policy similar to what Massachusetts State Treasurer Steve Grossman is calling for in which current lottery retailers are the point of sale for online tickets) but online poker or even online gambling might be a possibility down the road.
In 2012 Rhode Island put brick and mortar gambling expansion on the ballot as it sought to add table games to its casinos in Lincoln and Newport via two separate referendum questions.
RI voters rejected expansion at the Newport Grand in Newport (the measure passed statewide but failed on the local level) but voted in favor of expansion at the Twin Rivers Casino in Lincoln.
Online gambling would need to pass a similar statewide referendum, and I would be surprised if it didn’t pass, considering one third of Rhode Island’s budget is paid for by gambling.
And, unlike a brick and mortar expansion that failed locally in Newport, the argument of “I’m for it, but not in my backyard” wouldn’t necessarily apply to online gambling.
Statewide Question 1, authorizing table games at Twin Rivers, received 70% public support, while Question 2, authorizing table games at the Newport Grand received 65% public support.
It’s safe to say RI residents are not inherently anti-gaming.
Making online gambling expansion close to a necessity in Rhode Island is the ongoing brick and mortar casino expansion in Massachusetts, where a lot of Rhode Island’s gambling customer base resides, especially the Twin Rivers Casino, which is just across the border in Lincoln, RI.
It should also be noted that RI’s southern neighbor, Connecticut, also has two resort casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, just across the border from RI. All of these casinos dwarf the casinos in RI.
Once Massachusetts resort casinos are up and running, RI could see a significant drop off in the gambling revenue that the state relies on, something that could be offset by an expansion into online gambling.
With Nevada and Delaware signing an interstate online gambling compact and creating the Multi-State Internet Gaming Association that allows other states to join, small states like Rhode Island were immediately put in play for online gambling expansion.
The formerly legitimate argument against Rhode Island – and the lack of liquidity in other sparsely populated states – is no longer a concern, as they can now join MSIGA and combine their player pools with Nevada and Delaware, and perhaps more states down the road.
Nevada, Delaware, and Rhode Island have a combined population of nearly 5 million residents.
Considering Aubin’s trepidations regarding online gambling – and the complete lack of any type of bill having been introduced in RI – 2014 will, at best, be an exploratory year for the state.