Thursday, March 1, 2012

Legal gambling versus illegal gambling in The Bahamas

The Bahamian gambling saga

By Arinthia S. Komolafe

The election season is well in full force in The Bahamas.  All of the major political parties have cranked up their machinery and politicians are making their presence felt on the talk show circuit.  No one would argue that crime and the economy are two of the biggest concerns on the electorate’s mind as we move toward the 2012 general election.  However, politicians should not make the mistake of campaigning on these issues alone.  The Bahamian electorate want answers and proposed policies on a multitude of issues including immigration, exploration of natural resources for economic benefit and future plans to address our failing education system.  One of the issues that the next government of The Bahamas must confront is the more than half a century topic of gambling by Bahamians in The Bahamas.

Gambling no doubt is one of the most controversial topics of discussion in The Bahamas.  There are many proponents and critics.  It remains uncertain, however, what percentage of the Bahamian population is for or against legalizing gambling by Bahamians.  The reality is that we as a nation continue to go round and round in circles on this matter, while thousands of Bahamians patronize the multitude of what are commonly referred to as ‘number houses’ in The Bahamas.

The arguments

An argument against the legalization is that it will bring with it a myriad of social issues that are opposed to Christian values and will cause a decadence in Bahamian society.  While it is accepted among some that gambling may not be an outright sin in the Bible, gambling done in excess is sinful.

Others opposed to the legalization of gambling have put forth an economic argument claiming that gambling is an open form of regressive taxation that will affect those of the lower income brackets more than those of the middle and upper class.  As a result, those of the lower income class will fail to take care of their financial obligations at home such as paying necessary bills and caring for their families.  A perception exists that individuals below the poverty line gamble more than persons who are not poor.  However, studies in America suggest that the reverse is true as it was found that more persons of the middle class played the lottery as opposed to those of the lower income class.

Proponents of legalizing gambling assert that government cannot legislate morality.  Further, proponents claim that there are many potential benefits including an increase in government revenue which can contribute toward charitable purposes, infrastructure and most notably education.  Advocates of the legalization of gambling also argue that it is another legitimate source of income for a government that has limited ability to increase its revenue intake.  Although this argument has been successful in persuading a lot of Americans to vote in favor of a national lottery, it was found that the eventual revenue was not utilized in the manner that many had hoped for.  For instance, the additional revenue from the lottery did in fact go towards education; however, many states reduced or offset the allocation to the educational budget against revenue received from the lottery.  Hence, the education budget was not increased overall but education was merely funded by another source of revenue.  To remedy this effect, a few states in America have passed legislation to ensure that a certain percentage of revenue received from the lottery is allocated for the specific purpose of education.  This ensures that the funds are used for the purpose intended on the one hand, and on the other hand it ensures that the states do not decrease their allocation to education.

The greatest issue with gambling in The Bahamas is the fact that there is much hypocrisy surrounding the point.  Several decades ago, the government of the day approved policy for hoteliers and casino operators to provide gambling services, however casino gambling and ‘playing numbers’ was outlawed for Bahamians.  It is interesting to note that civic organizations, churches and schools still have the ability to distribute raffle tickets as a major fundraiser.  However, provisions have been made for such activities under the Gaming and Lotteries Act.  Over the years, law enforcers have conducted random raids of ‘number house’ establishments in an attempt to discourage the practice of gambling by Bahamians otherwise called ‘buying and selling numbers’.  However, the truth of the matter is that neither the government nor the law enforcers have done an adequate job ‘shutting down’ the number houses.

There is widespread hypocrisy in that the government allows foreign investors to enter the country and provide amenities for casino gambling for their guests, but Bahamians though guests of these hotels quite often are unable to utilize these gambling facilities.  It is unclear whether the operators of ‘number houses’ want gambling by Bahamians legalized.  Any potential legalization will certainly decrease their profits, reduce market share and relinquish their current control to a government authority.  Liberalization of the gambling market will foster competition and encourage the entrance of more competitors.  Hoteliers and casino operators may not prefer any gambling policy that allows Bahamians to gamble not because of a threat to their market share, but because it will provide Bahamians with the licence to enter these establishments and patronize all the amenities just as the foreign tourists and non-residents do.  Arguably, hoteliers and casino operators may not find such a policy good for their businesses.

It appears that there are arguably many special interests who prefer to keep the status quo.  However, maintenance of the current state of affairs will increase hypocrisy and anarchy among Bahamians.  It is advisable for the next government of The Bahamas to ascertain the gambling appetite of the Bahamian population and propose a referendum on the matter.  We must take a “what is good for the goose is good for the gander approach”.

Legal gambling in The Bahamas should benefit both Bahamians and non-residents alike.  The same is true for illegal gambling; neither Bahamians nor non-residents should benefit.  If Bahamians agree to legalize gambling, it follows that the government must take the necessary steps to comply with the wishes of the people.  However, if the overwhelming response is to keep gambling by Bahamians illegal, the government and relevant government agencies must enforce the law and uphold the provisions of the Gaming and Lotteries Act.  This is the essence of democracy – a government of the people, for the people and by the people.


Arinthia S. Komolafe is an attorney-at-law.  Comments can be directed at:

Mar 01, 2012