March 11, 2015 / 10:12 AM / in 3 years

Japan lawmakers ponder powering up casino bill via obscure parliamentary panel

TOKYO (Reuters) - Die-hard proponents of legalized casinos in Japan are considering a last-ditch effort to get their bill passed - by the obscure route of a parliamentary committee that handles matters like the removal of power poles.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he delivers his speech during the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) annual convention in Tokyo March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promoted casinos as part of his economic growth program. But strong opposition from some quarters and a press of priority legislation have essentially doomed the bill’s passage in the session scheduled to end in late June.

That in turn essentially dashes proponents’ hopes for gambling resorts to be built in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

In a long shot, some members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party are aiming to resubmit the expired bill to the relatively minor Land and Transport Committee - which deals with issues like removing unsightly utility poles in favor of underground lines. This would bypass the busy, and far more prominent, Cabinet Committee, normally chosen for such major legal changes.

“As long as the ruling coalition can agree and win support, it doesn’t matter which committee it’s submitted to,” LDP lawmaker Takeshi Iwaya told Reuters, adding that more discussion among ruling coalition members was needed.

The Cabinet Committee is clogged with higher-priority bills while the Land and Transport Committee has a slower legislative calendar. In addition to a backlog of other bills, the casino law also faces strong opposition from members of the Buddhist-backed Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner.

People in the pro-casino camp say this has made it difficult for them to push aggressively for the bill, even though supporters slightly outnumber opponents in parliament.

Iwaya said this year could be the last chance for Japan to legalize casinos, a move which would unlock a market that brokerage CLSA estimates could generate annual revenue of $40 billion.

“If this bill doesn’t pass the current session of parliament it will be hopeless. I think the time limit will be up,” Iwaya said.

Gaming companies such as Las Vegas Sands Corp and MGM Resorts International are seen shifting their attention to South Korea if Japanese lawmakers do not legalize casinos soon.

Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Resorts International, recently confirmed that he and other developers could not wait forever.

“This will take leadership. At some point someone is going to have to say ‘this is important to us, let’s push this thing forward’,” he told reporters at a conference last month.

“I think it does lose the momentum of a significant opportunity... so we would look elsewhere.”

Reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Emi Emoto; Editing by William Mallard and Nick Macfie

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