The legalization of casino gambling in Massachusetts has Rhode Island political leaders scrambling to protect a critical source of state income: its local slot parlors.
Revenue from gambling is the state’s third-largest source of income, generating more than $300 million a year.
To hang onto its share of the market, Rhode Island will ask voters in November to approve adding Las Vegas-style table games at Twin River, which would bring the Lincoln, R.I., slot venue a step closer to a resort casino.
About half of Twin River’s customers come from Massachusetts, according to spokeswoman Patti Doyle. The slot parlor generates about $270 million in annual gambling revenue for Rhode Island.
Direct competition from across the border could cost state government an estimated $100 million per year, said Gary Sasse, a former Rhode Island director of revenue.
“It’s almost a no-brainer if we have to compete with facilities very close, table games have to get serious consideration,’’ said Sasse, now director of the Bryant Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University.
Polling suggests the ballot measure stands a good chance of winning, though Rhode Island voters have rejected casino proposals in the past, such as in 2006, when they soundly spurned casino plans by the Narragansett Indian tribe.
In response to the Massachusetts casino legislation, Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has commissioned a study on competitive threats to Twin River and the state’s other slot venue, Newport Grand. Chafee has said he is “fully committed to protecting this vital source of revenue.’’
But Massachusetts intends to cut into Rhode Island’s take. The casino legislation approved in this state authorizes up to three resort-style casinos with hotels, slots, and table games, and one slots-only gambling parlor.
Several proposed casino sites in Massachusetts are close to the Rhode Island border, including Plainville, where Plainridge Racecourse plans to make a bid for the Massachusetts slots license. In nearby Foxborough, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn has proposed a $1 billion casino resort on land off Route 1 owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. A competing proposal is planned for Suffolk Downs in East Boston. In addition, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is searching for a site in Southeastern Massachusetts for a resort casino, and may land in Bridgewater.
Twin River has proposed to fight back by adding up to 125 table games within its existing footprint, said Doyle, the Twin River spokeswoman, which would bring hundreds of new jobs. Twin River now employs about 900 people.
“In order to fully compete, we’ll need to have that extra tool in our toolbox,’’ said Doyle.
Table games cost more to operate because dealers are needed to run them, said Patricia McQueen, president of a Framingham-based consulting firm, The Wagering Resource. “But table games are an attraction, and they do generally have a different audience so you can get a different crowd,’’ she said.
Twin River is planning a public campaign to build support in advance of the November vote. The campaign is expected to launch late next month or in early February, said Doyle.
Last week, Rhode Island political leaders also signaled a potential new interest in asking voters to put table games at the state’s second slot parlor, Newport Grand.
A longtime foe of casinos, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Almond, does not expect table games alone will prevent a drop in state revenue after casinos open in Massachusetts.
“It’s not going to be that much of a bigger revenue generator because the revenues are [mostly] from the machines,’’ said Almond, a Republican who came out of political retirement to campaign against the 2006 statewide casino proposal. He does not relish the idea of adding table games at Twin River, but “I guess at this point if you’re going to have casinos over the border, there’s not much sense in opposing it,’’ he said.
The Rev. Eugene J. McKenna, president of the local antigambling group, Citizens Concerned about Casino Gambling, is unmoved by the notion that Rhode Island should expand gambling now to fight off competition later.
“We don’t think that just because Massachusetts is doing it that allows us as a state to be predators of our own people,’’ said McKenna, who will fight the table games proposal for Twin River. “The more [state leaders] think that casinos are the answer, the less time they spend on true economic development.’’