By Taneka Thompson
Nassau Guardian Senior Reporter
NASSAU, Bahamas -- A controversial gambling referendum will be held in The Bahamas on December 3, Prime Minister Perry Christie announced in the House of Assembly on Thursday.
The ballot will have only one question: Do you support the legalization and regulation of web shops?
Christie said his government no longer intends to include the question of a national lottery based on advice from London-based consultants who do not consider the scheme to be “commercially viable at this time”.
The prime minister reiterated that the question of removing the prohibition on casino gambling for Bahamians will not be a part of the referendum.
Christie pledged to shut down web shops across the country if a majority of voters vote ‘no’ in the referendum.
“In that event, the government will act in furtherance of the expressed will of the electorate and take all necessary steps to ensure that our gaming laws are enforced and that the transgressors of those laws are dealt with in full accordance with those laws,” he said.
Christie also warned that not all web shop operators would be licensed if the referendum is successful and that only a small number will be legalized.
He said this would make it easier for the regulator to oversee the industry.
“In order to qualify for a web shop license, applicants would have to meet stringent criteria including possessing the necessary experience, integrity and expertise, as well as possessing the necessary financial resources and having organization capacity and internal controls needed to operate in an efficient, responsible and transparent manner.”
The government expects to get annual tax revenue of $15 million to $20 million from web shops if the referendum passes.
The money would fund scholarships, athletic and sporting development, music, art and Junkanoo programs, infrastructure, along with social and recreational outreach programs, according to the prime minister.
If web shops are legalized, they would be subject to a licensing fee of at least $1 million and a performance bond once the license is issued, he said.
Christie said the businesses would also have to pay annual taxes, based on their revenue, similar to the taxation structure casinos currently adhere to.
The businesses would also have to contribute to the cost of implementing the new laws and regulations for their industry.
Web shops would also have to -- as a condition of their licenses -- create and maintain programs to protect gamblers from addiction.
They would also have to help shoulder the cost of setting up a system to rehabilitate gambling addicts and bar them from entry to their shops.
The Gaming Board will serve as the licenser, arbitrator of disputes against licensed web shops and regulator of the industry.
Particular focus will be placed on anti-money laundering efforts to ensure that web shops are not concealing funds derived from criminal means, the prime minister said.
He stressed that his government will remain neutral on the issue and distanced himself from a website urging people to vote yes on the referendum.
“Information has been given to me that someone somewhere initiated a web program ‘Say Yes’ registered in the name Perry Gladstone Christie,” he said. “For what reason I do not know. That [isn’t] right and I hope it’s not politics.”
Persons who voted in the last general election will be able to vote in the referendum. Those who have not registered to vote will have up to 10 days before the December 3 poll to register.
Republished with permission of the Nassau Guardian