| PAY UP TAXES |
By Andre Bagoo Saturday, April 5 2014
THE GAME is up for proprietors of the gaming industry as Minister of Finance and the Economy Larry Howai yesterday unveiled a “strict regime” of measures meant to ensure they pay more taxes and to regulate previously unregulated but revenue-earning practices.
The Finance Minister gave figures indicating the growth and extent of the industry, stating it earns about $2 billion in revenue; and employs between 7,000 to 35,000 – with more than 25,000 amusement gaming machines operating in 6,000 pubs, bars and recreational pubs across the country. Yet, he said, the laws relating to the industry have not kept up.
“Although gaming is emerging as a substantial industry in Trinidad and Tobago, under the current legislative framework prevailing in Trinidad and Tobago, casino operations conducted by self-styled private members’ clubs and all gaming machine operations in recreation clubs, in pubs, in arcades and in shopping malls are illegal activities,” Howai said. “This state of affairs has existed for too long and today I am happy to report that this Government has begun the process which will result in decisive changes in the way in which this industry will be allowed to operate.”
Howai continued, “Strict control of this sector is of critical importance. While the growth suggests that there is a public demand for gaming services, there are inherent dangers that must be addressed. The gaming sector can only be a legitimate source of prosperity and entertainment if it is effectively regulated to deter crime, protect the vulnerable and promote fair treatment for the customer.”
Even bars and other public venues which do not centre around gambling but which feature amusement games (not slot machines), will be affected by the measures. The Minister said the State, through the Finance Bill 2014, would:
• increase the fee payable annually for a betting office licence for betting pool operators from $100,000 to $200,000;
• immediately call for private members’ clubs to keep a mandatory deposit of $500,000 to protect consumers seeking to enforce winnings;
• widen the net of taxation by making proprietors liable to pay taxes on revenues earned from tables, machines and devices and tables set up in their establishments;
• make taxes liable be paid in one annual lump sum; and
• bring gaming machines set up at bars within the ambit of regulation.
“These provisions are the first step in the implementation of a very strict regime which will ensure that this country’s regulatory environment meets acceptable international standards and to ensure that Trinidad and Tobago’s regulatory compliance reputation is not impaired,” Howai said. The measures are expected to come into effect immediately upon assent of the bill, with some scheduled to come into effect in December.
In relation to the doubling of the licence fee, Howai said the fee had not increased since 1995. He said this measure would come into effect from December, “to reflect the rate of inflation since 1995.” Coming into effect immediately is the requirement of a $500,000 deposit, which would work somewhat like the statutory funds of insurance companies: if not maintained, the business licence is revoked.
“This $500,000 deposit seeks to protect the consumer, while imposing regulatory parameters on those who offer casino-type games,” Howai said. “Any members’ club which fails to either pay or to top up their deposit and enters into any gambling transaction is liable to lose its certificate and the secretary of the club commits an offence for which a fine of $15,000 will be payable.”
On devices and tables, Howai said a new tag will be introduced by which it will be clear that the device is regulated. Businesses will have to pay revenue tax for each device.
“The situation which currently exists, Mr Speaker, is that members clubs engaging in gambling activities are required to pay no taxes other than taxes set out,” Howai noted. At the same time, pool tables – which businesses sometimes charge a fee for – will be made exempt.
“We are of the view that a pool table should be permitted to be used in bars and recreational clubs without being considered a gaming device,” Howai said, in a move likely to please pool players fearful of increased prices. On the requirement of a lump sum payment, the Minister said currently taxes are due quarterly.
“To enforce the obligation to pay tax, this Bill provides that from December 15, 2014, all taxes payable by members clubs must be paid in one lump sum,” the Senator said.
On the control of machines at liquour-selling premises such as bars, Howai said some bars will be exempt from the overall gaming provisions. However, they will still be regulated through the introduction of a new category of games to be known as “amusement games”.
“An amusement game is not the same thing as a slot machine (also known as a one-armed bandit),” Howai stated. “It is an electro-mechanical device in which small sums are wagered and on which small sums are won. The upper limit of potential winnings is $5,000.” He noted not all liquor premises will be allowed to have amusement machines but only those on which consumption of liquor is already licenced. The number of machines will be limited to 20. Non- payment of tax is to be penalised by loss of licence, a fine of $1,500 per day for the first day then $800 for each day of the offence.
Howai said in the long-term, a new Gaming Authority will be established, armed with the necessary regulatry powers to licence premises; approve operations and employment of gaming businesses; collect taxes; deal with unscrupulous operators and protect consumers. He said the Betting Levy Board, which is currently in charge of regulating horse and dog racing, is in the process of computerising all betting shops, with the “full support” of the State.