Jan. 31, 2003 – A little over two weeks ago, demontrators on St. Croix and St. Thomas demanded that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull exercise his veto power. On Friday, many of the same citizens turned out on both islands again, this time backing the governor and calling on the Legislature to pass his bill repealing a law enacted by override of an earlier gubernatorial veto.
The earlier protests, during ceremonies marking the governor's second inauguration, were of Senate passage of hefty pay raises for the governor, the lieutenant governor and the lawmakers themselves. In the face of growing opposition, Turnbull on Jan. 10 vetoed the increases.
In the same Dec. 23 session where the 24th Legislature approved the salary hikes, it also overrode the governor's third veto of legislation legalizing video lottery operations, in this case in the St. Thomas-St John district only. Friday's demonstrations were in opposition to the introduction of video lottery terminals. More specifically, they were in support of legislation the governor has now sent to the new Legislature calling for repeal of the VLT law.
VLT's made their first appearance in the territory on Thursday, with four of the terminals up and running at Bluebeard's Castle Hotel in downtown St. Thomas. According to published reports, more of the machines were on island in boxes waiting to be unpacked.
Three senators, hundreds of others on St. Croix
Community outrage at the new law allowing VLT's prompted a spirited crowd of about 300 persons to turn out in Christiansted to protest the gambling machines. Gathered at the bandstand by Fort Christiansvaern for a rally, they chanted "No to VLT" and "Repeal VLT" to the insistent sound of bongos being played around the bandstand.
The event was organized by members of the United Virgin Islands Action Coalition, a group that earlier this month was instrumental in persuading the governor to capitulate to demands that he veto the hefty pay hikes.
While it was mainly coalition leaders who took to the microphone, several others in the community also spoke out against the video lottery law. Among them was Dr. Olaf Hendricks, head of psychiatry at Juan F. Luis Hospital and also a member of the V.I. Alliance for Responsible Gaming, an organization formed to help people with gambling problems. Its members represent the casino, lottery and horse racing industries; gaming regulators; and mental health professionals.
The alliance, although mandated by law, has yet to receive funding from the Finance Department. It is entitled to 1 percent of the taxes collected from the Divi Carina Bay Casino, estimated at about $30,000 since the casino's opening in 2000.
"It's devastating to know that the prevention program that deals with gambling is not yet fully in place, but our leaders felt it necessary to bring more to the territory," Hendricks said.
A majority vote — at least eight in favor — is needed to pass the repeal bill. Whether those votes will materialize will depend on how several senators swing, and right now, that's anybody's guess.
Three St. Croix senators, all newly elected last fall, were present at Friday's Christiansted demonstration.
Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards publicly announced his opposition to bringing VLT's to the territory early on. He spoke passionately Friday about the need to rid the Virgin Islands of the terminals and urged solidarity on the issue — especially among Crucians, he said, because they stand to lose the most.
Sen. Ronald Russell told the Source before he spoke at the rally on Friday that he remains undecided on the issue. He said he wishes to weigh both sides before making a decision and suggested a public debate between proponents and opponents of VLT's.
But when he expressed those sentiments at the microphone, the audience responded with outraged boos.
Sen. Luther Renee also said from the courtyard of the fort that he has not come to a conclusion about the terminals. "My place is really to evaluate both sides of the issue and decide what is best for the territory," he said.
Small group, two senators on St. Thomas
Members of the community group Citizens for Fiscally Responsible Government gathered across the street from the Legislature Building in Charlotte Amalie on Friday evening to protest the allowance of video lottery terminals in the St. Thomas- St. John District. The small group was also showing support for a group of individuals also protesting at the same time in St. Croix.
Last week, Turnbull sent the 25th Legislature his bill to repeal the law legalizing video lottery operations. It will be up to the Senate president, David Jones, to introduce the measure — or not. Jones has long been an outspoken advocate of video lottery as a needed source of revenue for the territory.
Terry Rawson, one of those protesting, charged that the 24th Legislature went against the will of the people. In a referendum in the 1990s, Virgin Islanders voted against casino gambling in the St. Thomas-St. John district, while approving it for the St. Croix district.
Rawson, a longtime St. Thomas resident, said video lottery operations should not be allowed, even in his district. "It's just going to kill the St. Croix economy," he said.
St. Croix's Divi Carina Bay Casino opened in March 2000; there are two more in the wings. Bernie Burkholder, chief executive of the company that runs the Divi gaming operation, has opposed the idea of video lottery operations each time it has come before the Legislature in the last two years.
Curtis Robinson, the developer planning to build the $500 million Seven Hills Beach Resort and Casino at Robin Bay, has said investors in his project are shying away because they had been assured gambling in the Virgin Islands would be permitted only on St. Croix.
Another of those demonstrating Friday, Jason Budsan, said he is against the VLT's because voters made it clear they disapproved of such gambling in the referendum several years ago.
"Four years ago this illegal contract was negotiated without proper process," Budsan said, referring to a contract between the V.I. Lottery and Southland Gaming of North Carolina that provided for the company to have exclusive rights to set up VLT's if and when they became legal.
According to Budsan, Attorney General Iver Stridiron issued an opinion last year telling the legislators that the contract with Southland was illegal for various reasons.
"Without regulation and the fact that the St. Thomas-St. John district does not want gambling here, we demand a repeal," Budsan said.
Budsan was an organizer of the grassroots group Citizens for Financially Responsible Government, which was in the forefront of mobilizing opposition to the pay raises earlier in January, He said that the five states where VLT's are in use have seen more social problems than increased revenues.
"For the Senate to say that the money [to play the games] would come from visitors is so far from the truth," Budsan said. "Why would the same people who have gambling machines on the ship come to our beautiful islands to put their money into a machine?"
Helen Gjessing, a League of Women Voters member among Friday's demonstrators, said she is against all forms of gaming for the St. Thomas-St. John district. "All kind of social ills can come from it, and I don't think much revenue will come from it," she said.
Another League member, Ellen MacLean, said that the protesters by their actions hope to show the senators the folly of thinking that VLT's are good for the Virgin Islands. "I don't like the fact that the legislation just kind of slid in," she said of the veto override. No public hearings were held on the matter, she noted.
"We hope that we will change the senators' minds," MacLean said. "We hope the senators see that this kind of gambling is not going to increase
revenues on the island."
Two senators, freshman Louis Hill of the St. Thomas-St. John district and two-term St. Croix legislator Douglas Canton Jr., came out from the Legislature Building to hear the demonstrators' concerns. In December, Canton voted against overriding the governor's veto. He and Hill both expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, saying they, too, oppose video lottery operations in the territory.
"The St. Thomians voted against gambling, so until we go back to the polls it shouldn't be here," Hill told the group. "If the governor's repeal comes to the floor, I will support it."
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