By JEFF TODD Associated Press
NASSAU, Bahamas January 28, 2013 (AP)
Voters in the Bahamas were deciding Monday whether some forms of gambling will be permitted for citizens of the archipelago off Florida’s east coast, where locals are barred from betting in casinos at the islands’ tourist resorts.
Underground gambling operations called “web shops” where Bahamians bet on numbers in televised U.S. lotteries have become commonplace in recent years. The shops operate in violation of Bahamian law, but police and political leaders have largely turned a blind eye to them.
In a two-part referendum, voters are being asked whether the islands’ gambling shops should be legalized, regulated and taxed, and if the government should create its own national lottery.
Prime Minister Perry Christie’s administration has encouraged citizens to support legalizing the gambling businesses, arguing that the underground houses employ thousands of Bahamians and could generate $20 million a year in taxes if they are regulated.
But the islands’ powerful church lobby and the political opposition are fiercely opposed to any legalized betting for locals.
“To bring the ruinous spirit of gambling and unleash this vice would crush us,” said pastor Lyall Bethel, co-chairman of an anti-gambling campaign called “Save Our Bahamas” that has held prayer vigils in the capital of Nassau in recent weeks.
Karen Demeritte, a 51-year-old administrative assistant, said she voted against the measure because she believes that the societal costs will far outweigh the benefit to tax coffers in the Caribbean country of about 350,000 inhabitants.
“We have not given any kind of thought to the downside and the social ills attached to gambling. We will end up paying for it,” she said.
Rick Lowe, general manager of a car dealership in Nassau, countered that various forms of gambling are clearly widespread on the islands and adults should be able to spend their money as they see fit.
“Society has passively approved it. It is impossible to stop gambling,” Lowe said.
The Bahamian prime minister said if there is a minority vote during Monday’s referendum then his administration will decide the matter.