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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

No dice for casino

Those looking for a good bet at this year’s Liberation Day Carnival are likely to lose. Amid the Liberation Day committee’s attempts to block the casino-ban legislation, the 34th Guam Legislature has voted unanimously to make the annual carnival a gambling-free jamboree.

“This is our chance to put out the fire that gambling has sparked in this community,” said Sen. Telena Nelson, author of Bill 50-34, which would lift the exemptions previously granted to casino-style gambling.

While Guam is supposedly a no-gambling zone, local laws provide for exemptions, occasionally sanctioning operations in desperate attempts to find fiscal salvation. “Public offices are becoming dependent on profits from professionally managed and equipped gambling enterprises at the Liberation Carnival fair grounds that are otherwise prohibited from operating under the laws of Guam,” states Bill 50-34.

In 2013, the 33rd Guam Legislature passed a compromise proposal to defer the ban on all forms of gambling until the debts incurred by the Guam Memorial Hospital—the bill’s beneficiary—are paid off. Leonardo Rapadas, then Guam’s attorney general, described the measure, Bill 19, as an attempt “to legalize currently illegal electronic gambling devices.”

While claiming to stand up for an anti-gambling policy, Gov. Eddie Calvo betrayed his tentative position. He hedged his bets by allowing the bill to lapse into law, declaring that “nothing will change except that the hospital will get more money.”

If Bill 50-34 eventually takes effect, the next step is to hunt for alternative resources to assist planners of the Liberation Day activities, according to Sen. Tommy Morrison.

Nelson sees hope in the passage of Bill 50-34, which she said shows that “social ramifications of gambling and the voices of the people of Guam offset any revenue” generated from gambling operations. “Our public safety, our social environments, our representative government, our rich history – they are not for sale,” she added.

For the anti-gambling lot, the menace that comes with the vice can’t be said enough. “I don’t think anybody really realizes that gambling, the issue of gambling, the addiction of gambling is not a personal issue. It’s actually a community issue. It affects everyone,” Sen. Louise Muna said.

Just the same, seeing a complete gambling ban on Guam is a long shot. There is always a spot for a clause that, by default, attaches “culture” to other forms of gambling such as bingo or lottery and cockfighting. These activities “are grounded in our culture,” Nelson said in explaining why they ought to remain legal.

While voting in favor of the bill, Sen. Tom Ada expressed concern that gaming companies might just reprogram their game should the ban go into effect. “Those who invest in casino gambling may instead begin to invest in cockfighting or lotteries,” he said.

The legislature is just taking baby steps toward the full cleanup, Speaker Benjamin Cruz said, addressing Ada’s concern. “We’re going to have to address these one at a time,” Cruz said. “That is why when I spoke with the sponsor about the bill; it had to be a very simple repeal. We were going to wipe out an exception that was in the law for casino gambling.”

At any rate, Guam senators might have made a good political wager when they voted for Bill 50-34. Previous elections have established the Guam electorate’s aversion to casino; if that translates to future votes, they might have scored some points. “The public has rejected gambling initiatives five times in the past eight years,” Sen. Régine Biscoe Lee said.

Despite the gaming proposals’ repeated defeats, casino proponents showed relentlessness, making such initiatives seem like a mainstay in local elections. The highest stake was presented in 2008 by John Baldwin, owner of Bridge Capital, who proposed to build $100 million casino resort at the now abandoned Guam Greyhound Park in Tamuning. This was proposed after Baldwin’s first ill-fated initiative in 2006.

The latest failed proposal to legalize casino on island was initiated by Japanese investor Takami Hisamoto, who proposed the establishment of the Guam Japan Friendship Village at the old Greyhound Park.

In her congressional address before the 32nd Guam Legislature in 2013, Bordallo announced a plan to come up with a bill that would require federal approval of any local law authorizing the establishment of casino on Guam. “Our people, have said no, and please go away. Our people are tired of the constant barrage by pro-casino outside interests,” Bordallo said. “It’s time that we all say båsta (enough)!”

If enacted, she said the Båsta Act would mean that casinos cannot be established without local and federal approval. “No longer will casino interests be able to use our local laws to impose their values on us,” she said.

But for Guam residents, getting the federal government involved in a domestic matter that has been well managed locally— by Jackie Marati’s Keep Guam Good— is not something that the community would place its bet on. The Keep Guam Good’s “No on Prop A” signs are stashed in storage, waiting to be retrieved and dusted off every election season.

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