Palau Casino Bill Dead On Arrival In Senate

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House approved bill fails to pass first reading

By Jose Rodriguez T. Senase

KOROR, Palau (Island Times, Jan. 15, 2015) – The Senate, during its session on Wednesday, January 14, 2015, "killed" the Casino Bill outright by refusing to approve it in the first reading.

According to Senate sources, only two of the 12 senators present –Senators Joel Toribiong and Hokkons Baules- voiced their support for the Casino Bill and approved, in a voice vote, for its adoption and subsequent referral to the appropriate committee for further review. Sen. Mlib Tmetuchl reportedly was not able to attend Wednesday’s session because he is off-island.

The measure was earlier approved in a near-unanimous vote by the House of Delegates (HOD). Of the 16 members of the HOD, only two- Delegates Frank Kyota and Gibson Kanai- opposed the measure.

The Bill provides for the establishment of the Palau Gaming Commission (PGC). The powers and duties of the PGC, as proposed in the Bill include: 1) To issue no more than once casino license; 2) To conduct hearings pertaining to a casino license or any violation of rules and regulations promulgated by the Palau Gaming Commission; 3) To promulgate rules and regulations in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act in Title 6 of the Palau National Code; 4) To detain and remove undesirable persons from any casino; and to levy and collect fees, fines, and penalties.

The proposed law also provides that a casino license once granted is valid for 50 years, and that citizens and residents are prohibited from gambling at the licensed casino.

The Bill states that the license holder shall pay $300 million for the first year of the term of the license to cover the first, 49th and 50th years of the casino license fee. It also provides that the casino license holder shall pay $50 million annually beginning the sixth year of the license, and on through the 50th year.

House Bill No. 153-15S, as the measure is officially known, was introduced by 13 members of the HOD led by Speaker Anastacio on September 4, 2014. The passage of the measure by the House came after public hearings conducted in all 16 states of Palau and a fact-finding trip to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

Isechal: I am disappointed

The outright rejection of Casino Bill saddened Delegate Jonathan Isechal, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and one of the lead sponsors of the Casino Bill.

"Though I understand their position, I am disappointed by the Senate action to reject the Casino Bill outright," Isechal said.

"I feel down, but not out," he stated.

Isechal said he wonders what the leadership of the Senate and the senators expect from the House going forward in the two years left for the 9th OEK.

"No bill goes to the President without the approval of both houses of the OEK," he noted.

Anti-Casino lawmakers justify vote

Sen. J. Uduch Sengebau-Senior, one of the senators who voted for the outright rejection of the Casino Bill, said the voice of the people should be given more weight.

In the latest referendum held in 2011 during the time of former President Johnson Toribiong, 75.5 percent of Palauan voters voted against casino gaming.

"The people have spoken before that we don’t need the casino. We should respect them more," the lady lawmaker stated.

For his part, Sen. Phillip Reklai, who also casted an anti-casino vote, said that he believes that a majority of Palauans are not yet ready to accept casino.

Reklai said he does not believe that the issue will deter the House of Delegates from working with the Senate on other issues.

Sen. Surangel Whipps, Jr. said overwhelming opposition from the people of Palau made him vote against the Casino proposal.

He noted that the Council of Chiefs, Mechesil Belau, and many others have expressed strong opposition to Casino.

"There is even a Facebook page dedicated to opposing Casino," he noted. "I respect the will of the people," Whipps added.

While lauding the effort and ideas of the HOD in introducing and passing the Casino Bill, Whipps faulted the process it went through.

"There should be a referendum first. If the people vote for Casino gaming, then, it is the time for us lawmakers to craft laws to regulate it," he stated.

"The situation now is like putting the cart before the horse," Whipps added.

For her part, Sen. Rukebai Inabo said that the idea of a Casino is "just too big" for Palau.

The lady senator said that looking at the entity that will establish the Casino and the idea that it will bring revenues twice the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Palau is simply "unbelievable".

"It seems unworkable to me. We should stop "dreaming" and instead continue to build our economy based on what we have now," Inabo said.

Sen. Mason Whipps, the strongest opponent of Casino, said that there is simply no reason for Casino to be in Palau.

"The people of Palau have already stated their opinion on Casino several times before. Overwhelmingly, the people said they don’t need the Casino. We should respect the people’s decision," he said.

Whipps also said that the government is not ready to handle Casino and its side issues.

"There are issues of money laundering, gambling, organized crime, and others. We also need to monitor banks and our borders. I don’t think the government is prepared to handle such a complex matter," he stressed.

Whipps also cited opposition from businesses as a reason to reject Casino.

He said that an informal survey done among business people during the recent Economic Symposium shows that industry does not need Casino.

"My vote on Casino will never be "Yes"," Whipps concluded.

For his part, Senate President Camsek Chin said strong opposition from many sectors and results of previous Casino referendums made him vote against Casino.

"The Council of Chiefs, the Mechesil Belau, among others oppose Casino gaming. Also, the people have already decided on the matter before," Chin said.

The Senate President said he does not believe that the Casino issue will affect the relationship between the House and the Senate.

"I think that it will even strengthen the relationship between the HOD and the Senate. We may disagree on this one issue, but we agree on most other issues, "said Chin, noting that in the past two years, 41 bills have been approved.

"Many of those bills originated from the House," he pointed out.

Pro-Casino Senators: House was not respected

Sen. Baules said the outright rejection of the Casino Bill disrespected the HOD.

"I support the Casino Bill like most members of the House of Delegates," he said.

Baules said the Bill should have been adopted by the Senate in the first reading, referred to the appropriate committee for review, and voted upon.

Baules said the Senate, specifically pointing to the six members of the new "Minority" (Senators Oilouch, Whipps, Surangel, Reklai, Inabo, and Sengebau), has no respect for the HOD.

Baules said it is not true that majority of Palauans oppose Casino gaming.

"When you see the results of the 2011 Casino Referendum, it shows that majority of 4,000 voters voted against Casino," Baules pointed out.

"Palau has more than 13,000 registered voters. It is clear that 4,000 is not the majority of Palauans," the Senator said.

Likewise, Sen. Toribiong said the right process was not followed by the Senate in rejecting outright the Casino Bill.

"It should have gone through the proper process. The move is an insult to the House. The decorum between the two houses has now been ruined. Now, the Senate and the House cannot see eye to eye," Toribiong stated.

Island Times was not able to get the comments of Senate Vice President Kathy Kesolei, and Senators Mark Rudimch, Regis Akitaya, and Raynold Oilouch as of press-time.

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