March 15, 2003 – Senators heard what residents of the St. Thomas-St. John district think of the presence of video lottery machines in their community Friday night. The collective opinion: not much.
About a dozen people turned out for the Committee of the Whole hearing, as opposed to the crowds on hand for the one held Thursday night on St. Croix. But what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in articulate and sometimes vociferous determination.
The community members were first on the agenda Friday, whereas on Thursday they had to wait five and a half hours before being given a chance to voice their opinions, a situation that did not go over well with those who testified at the St. Croix hearing, which went until 3 a.m. Friday.
Senate President David Jones made it clear at the outset Friday that he would not entertain any motion to move into full session for a vote on the bill before the 25th Legislature to repeal the law legalizing video lottery terminals in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
Jones noted that the Turnbull administration is challenging the government's contract with Southland Gaming to distribute VLT's in the territory. Southland sued first last month, asking the Territorial Court to uphold its 1998 contract, and the Attorney General's Office responded asking the court to nullify it. The matter is scheduled to be heard on March 24. "It is prudent to let the court decide the legality of the issue," Jones said. (See "Legal moves land VLT contract issue in court".)
With one exception — an employee of Southland Gaming — all of those testifying Friday night were adamantly against the presence of VLT's. Most objected to their having been approved with no public hearings or other input and to their possible disruptive social influence.
Lack of public input lamented
Referring to the Dec. 23 final session of the 24th Legislature at which the Senate overrode the governor's third veto in two years of bills to allow VLT's, Helen Gjessing noted that "There were no hearings, no chance for the public to respond to actions that were, in my mind, unconscionable."
Gjessing, who often testifies on behalf of the League of Women Voters but in this instance was speaking as an individual, said: "It's insulting, it's disgusting."
She added, "It kind of blows my mind that policy makers still think that gambling is the solution to our economic woes. It seems to me the social consequences will far outweigh the benefits of the VLT's."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Craig Barshinger. "We've had a major social issue decided without public input," he said.
Barshinger, who lost a close race in November with Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd for the at-large Senate seat, took issue with the legislative process not having been followed in the enactment of the VLT enabling law.
Describing himself with a chuckle as a "future senator," Barshinger disputed VLT proponents' claims of the machines' economic value to the territory. Jones is among those who have long advocated VLT's as beneficial to the local economy.
Addressing the Senate president, and provoking a rare smile from him during the hearing, Barshinger said: "You always have wildly creative ideas" for boosting the economy. "Why don't you think of some other means?"
Two St. Croix residents who had testified at Thursday's hearing came to St. Thomas to continue their testimony on Friday. Chenzira Kahina and Carl Christopher arrived armed with documents attesting to the social ills created by VLT's which they distributed to the senators. Kahina cited numerous jurisdictions that she said have removed the machines because of their addictive nature.
Attracting revenue vs. creating jobs
Kahina, a St. Croix community activist, said that even if the machines should bring in needed revenue for the government, they don't create jobs. "People need to work, need to support their families," she said, "and people need jobs and that doesn't seem to be a part of introducing VLT's in the community."
Christopher cited documents which he said show that the government was moving to sign a VLT contract as far back as 1996. "The cart was put before the horse," he said, "and the proper procedure wasn't followed."
Christopher also told Jones he was not being fair to St. Croix developers in questioning their motives. "We are sending a bad message to developers," he said.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II agreed that a "bad message" was being sent to developers, but he came from the other side of the issue. "We want outside development, and then we chase them away," he said.
Hansen said the government has a duty to live up to its contract with Southland Gaming.
Jason Budsan, spokesman for the ad hoc group Citizens for Fiscally Responsible Government, told the senators: "There are many ways to generate revenues for our economy. Electronic slot machines should not be the direction we should take."
In a prepared statement, Budsan said, "Let us not bring down our tourism product by adding slot machines." He also addressed the potential impact of VLT's on local people. Citing the high proportion of locals who gamble at the territory's only casino, on St. Croix, where the gaming is regulated, is said: "It is frightening. Imagine what it would be like without regulations."
Sen. Louis Hill agreed. "With no regulations in place" for the machines, he said, "we must call on the governor to enforce the laws where these machines are illegally placed." He continued, "Rather than focus on VLT's as an economic vehicle for the V.I., we should work on incentives to get cruise ships back to St. Croix, to revitalize the local marine industry. These are the real issues."
Witness found to be Southland employee
Wayne Hodge, a former operator of the V.I. Racing Association, spoke in favor of the VLT's. He said the machines should be allowed at the Clinton E. Phipps Race Track on St. Thomas. "Purses are low, overheads are high," he said. "Having VLT's would help us to have a Class 1 race track."
Under questioning later by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, it was revealed that Hodge is an employee — and apparently the only one locally — of Southland Gaming. Hodge said he first met Southland Gaming's president, Bob Huckabee, in January when he was hired. Jn Baptiste produced documents showing that Hodge was hired in December. "Maybe I could have been mistaken," Hodge said.
Hodge refused to tell Jn Baptiste his salary. The St. Croix senator quizzed Hodge about other aspects of his employment. Obviously vexed at Hodge's replies, Jn Baptiste finally said, "You and I are both Virgin Islanders, so I will not continue this discussion."
Sen. Luther Renee, also representing St. Croix, said video gambling even in the St. Thomas-St. John district would have detrimental effects on his island. He said the lottery terminals on St. Thomas would unfairly compete with St. Croix's casino gambling industry.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, sponsor of the bill before the Senate to repeal the VLT's, asked where Austin Andrews, executive director of the V.I. Lottery, was. Andrews did not attend either hearing, despite having been invited to testify.
The Territorial Court's ruling on the validity of Southland Gaming's contract will not affect the current legality of video lottery operations in the St. Thomas-St. John district. The bill before the Senate would repeal the law allowing the VLT's. A vote on that measure is to be taken at the body's next full session, which Jones has not yet scheduled.
All 15 senators attended Friday's hearing.
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