No more new poker licenses on Saipan after April 2, 2015

The government will no longer issue new or additional licenses for poker, pachinko, or similar amusement machines on Saipan after April 2, 2015, slowly ridding the island of these gambling machines that sprung up within or near residential and school areas over the years. But Rep. Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan) said the Saipan casino law, which phases out the poker industry, still needs to be clarified, including where to get all or a portion of the $3 million to fund the Saipan Higher Education Financial Assistance that relies on poker fees.

“The casino law does not say where the money for SHEFA will come from after poker machines are gone. Will it be the central government’s responsibility, after realizing revenues from the casino? We need to know,” Benavente, chairman of the House Committee on Education, told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

Benavente said that without clarification of the alternative funding source, one would expect that the central government will direct Saipan casino-related revenues to fund SHEFA.

Saipan lawmakers annually appropriate some $3 million in poker license fees for SHEFA.

Gross revenue tax from a Saipan casino operation is only set aside by law for utilities subsidy, the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., medical referral, land compensation payments, and the Public School System.

Casino license fee, meanwhile, is mainly for retirees’ deferred 25-percent pension and for interest on defined benefit members’ withdrawn contributions.

Section 2302(d) of the casino law, or Public Law 18-56, states: “After April 2, 2015, no new or additional licenses for poker, pachinko or similar amusement machines, but not including electronic gaming machines as defined in 6 CMC 3154(a)(4), shall be granted or allowed to operate outside of the approved casino establishment, hotel, or La Fiesta within the Third Senatorial District.”

It adds, “The licenses issued for poker, pachinko, and similar amusement machines that began its operation prior to April 2, 2015, shall be allowed to continue operation in the Third Senatorial District.”

Benavente, who is also chairman of the Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation’s Education Committee, said it is not clear whether existing poker machines would still be allowed to “renew” their license beyond April 2, 2015, or will only be allowed to finish the duration of the valid license granted on or before April 2, 2015.

Poker businesses pay $12,500 per poker machine, which translates to at least $3.75 million if there are at least 300 machines. In recent years, the number of licensed poker machines on Saipan has plummeted.

The phase out of the Saipan poker industry under the casino law is not the only one that poker operators need to be cognizant of.

A Saipan local law signed in October 2013 requires poker operators currently within 200 feet of schools, churches, parks, playgrounds, and laundry facilities to relocate within up to four years or up to 2017.

“This local law on relocating poker machines near schools and villages is another thing that we need to clarify,” Benavente added.

Under Saipan Local Law 18-5, no new poker parlors will be allowed to operate within 200 feet of schools, churches, parks, playgrounds and Laundromats on Saipan. Existing poker businesses within the 200-foot radius will have up to four years to relocate.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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