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May 5, 2015

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Casinos hedge their bets when it comes to political spending

Despite all their differences on policy, Republicans and Democrats want to leave Nevada voters with a common message with the start of early voting: This election is about the economy, and they are the party with the solutions to get it going again.

Such directly contradictory political messaging can get confusing. But if the election is all about the economy, then where are the brains behind Nevada’s biggest economic industry placing their bets?

The short answer: all over the place.

The big Las Vegas Strip casinos are putting their political cash behind candidates at every level on the federal ballot, throwing thousands to the presidential candidates, would-be House representatives, and most of all, the two incumbent lawmakers vying for Nevada’s Senate seat.

In this election cycle, the national casino industry is primed to drop more than $50 million on candidates, lobbying and campaign donations, with the bulk of that coming from Sheldon Adelson’s record-breaking soft money donations to PACs backing Republicans, according to contribution totals tallied by lobbying and campaign finance database OpenSecrets combined with newly released filings.

Subtract the $34 million Adelson donated through September and it’s still a pretty healthy sum of money, at least keeping pace with where spending was in 2008, when the industry chalked up $17 million.

For the most part, beyond Adelson, the casinos and their executives are not picking one party over the other, according to contribution totals tallied by OpenSecrets.

In fact, the partisan split in party donations in the 2012 cycle is the closest it has been in a decade, after years where the Democratic Party pulled in measurably more support than Republicans — a reflection of just how close this election is.

“The casinos usually cover both sides of the ticket, just to make sure,” said Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “Whoever wins, they want them to remember: You supported them.”

Strip casinos have their favorites, but they don’t always match up with those of their counterparts in other parts of the country or the rest of their industry.

For example: Nationally, the casino and gambling industry’s No. 1 recipient of political cash is President Barack Obama.

But on the Strip, you’ll be hard pressed to find a casino or a top executive throwing much official money in his direction. A few casino executives outside of Adelson have thrown some cash to presidential challenger Mitt Romney, who ranks No. 4 in casino cash nationally, but it’s chump change compared with how much is being spent on Nevada candidates vying for other federal seats.

“Obviously, they’re playing more of a congressional game,” said David Damore, a professor of political science at UNLV. “Congress is much more important for them because of the regulatory frameworks they need, and because of the push for internet gaming.”

Casinos care about only two things when it comes to Washington, gaming experts said: online poker and taxes.

“At the end of the day, gaming is really a state-regulated issue. So other than issues dealing with online gaming, which crosses state lines ... there’s really not a whole lot of federal involvement, short of the tax policies that are going to affect all businesses, including casinos,” said Robert La­Fleur, a gaming analyst with financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald in New York. “Corporate tax rates, how dividends are taxed — those are the things that are going to affect the decisions all businesses make.”

“They’re looking at the national economy, because a stronger national economy is better for Las Vegas,” said David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. He adds tourism promotion and visa waivers to the list of federal issues that would concern casinos. “Ever since the federal government stopped trying to close the casinos down in the ’60s, I think they just want somebody in there who’s going to help foster a strong economy. ... They’re just basically backing who they think is going to be best in that job.”

On issues like online gaming and tourism promotion, there really isn’t that much difference between Nevada Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to taxation, there are differences — but not of the magnitude that would necessarily be a deal breaker for one party or the other.

Senate candidates Dean Heller, a Republican, and Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, rank second and third with the casino industry nationally, being the beneficiaries of a respective $224,350 and $210,832 in the last two-year cycle , according to the most recent count available from OpenSecrets; those totals are expected to rise by tens of thousands of dollars as the latest financial reports are processed.

When it comes to the top Strip casinos, they’re in a similar holding pattern. The Federal Election Commission is still processing the latest figures. But among MGM, Station Casinos and Caesars PACs and individuals, Berkley's campaign raked in $117,900 through midsummer, while Heller's campaign drew in $77,250 — plus generous donations from Adelson’s and Wynn’s PACs and employees that brought his total up to $143,500.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s top casino executives are politically divided over who they want running the Senate: While Adelson and Wynn are donating to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Frank Fertitta, chairman and CEO of Station Casinos, and Caesars CEO Gary Loveman are writing checks to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, aka the committee to keep Sen. Harry Reid in charge. MGM, meanwhile, has contributed to both the Republican and Democratic Senate campaign committees from its official PAC.

At the House level, campaign donations appear a little more erratic. Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican representing Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, and former Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat running to represent Nevada’s 1st Congressional District, are the only recipients of casino money in those districts, because their races are not considered competitive.

But in the two districts where a race is on, the contributions also are pretty one-sided.

In the 3rd Congressional District, Republican Rep. Joe Heck pulled in $67,750 from MGM, Station, Boyd and Caesars, with an additional $55,000 from Wynn and Sands. Democratic challenger John Oceguera, meanwhile, has eked out only $6,700 from their PACs, according to the OpenSecrets ledger of each political action committee’s disbursements (an itemized list of individual contributors from the casinos was not immediately available).

That could be explained by poll numbers — Heck has been polling ahead of Oceguera for the duration of the campaign and is heavily favored to win. But in the 4th Congressional District, casinos are bucking the wisdom that playing it safe by supporting both sides is the smart way to go.

Station Casinos is the only one of the big Las Vegas outfits where some combination of the PAC and top executives are giving money to Republican Danny Tarkanian and Democrat Steven Horsford: The Federal Election Commission tallied $5,000 for Tarkanian and show Station CFO Marc Falcone and chief development officer Scott Nielson contributing $2,000 each to Horsford.

Boyd and MGM are supporting Horsford with $48,000 — MGM’s second-highest contribution after Berkley. But Caesars is betting on Tarkanian alone, with $9,999 in contributions.

It’s an illustration of how much of this can come down to personal relationships — and settling old scores. Horsford incurred Caesars’ wrath during the 2011 legislative session when he scuttled the casino’s efforts to pass a tax to fund the construction of an arena.

“Caesars is (mad) about the arena. They were going to back whomever went against (Horsford),” Damore explained. “What do you think? It’s a town with, like, 10 people in it. It’s a small group of people who have been operating together for a long period of time.”

Lobbyists’ donations to Nevada candidates this cycle have been almost singularly focused on the state Senate race.

At last count, Heller’s campaign drew about $13,500 from paid Las Vegas casino lobbyists, most of it given in the last quarter of 2011. Berkley pulled $8,000 — less than Heller, but then again, she wasn’t the sitting senator who could have potentially been the key to an online poker bill.

As the final pre-election donation figures are processed and released, those numbers are expected to rise — but few experts believe casinos’ proportional giving will change. With so much political parity, one might wonder what, exactly, is the point of pumping all this money through campaigns and congressional offices. Experts point to the history of the casino to explain that it’s to keep the peace with Washington, rather than scoring a political victory.

“Politicians don’t hold a grudge (if you give to their opponent). What politicians resent is if you don’t give them any money,” Peplowski said. “After casinos became corporations and went legit ... they decided to spread the money around because the last thing in the world they want is any kind of federal meddling with gaming regulations.

“The money they’re giving is one of principle. The casinos are saying: ‘Hey we gave — come talk to us later.’”

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  1. Yep, just follow the money trail folks. Especially the Nevada STATE LAWMAKERS' trail. It is real telling how they will legislate and vote.

    Since the political game involves winners and losers, and those who make it a career to play the political game, it is vital for voters to carefully monitor representatives, and hold them accountable. They affect our lives in more ways than we ever dreamed of, yet few people bother to vote, and worst of all, fewer yet are adequately informed or educated about candidates and or propositions.

    This has been an incredible influence in runaway government and having representatives that DO NOT represent you, me, or us collectively! We must start the change(to actively participate in our political system) by holding ourselves accountable with our informed vote.

    As an aside, Nevada's Casino/Resort/Gaming industry is well on its way OUT of this state. In recent years, they have steadily moved their eggs OUT of the Nevada state basket; across state lines (building casino/resorts in other states now), overseas (building massive casino/resorts in other countries), and yes, even moving into cyberspace with online gaming. They are still one of the largest employers in the state of Nevada, and SHOULD, by all accounts, have the proposed tax, for school building/maintenance/improvements be levied on them (instead of overburdened property owners)!

    Nevadans have been used by this industry, and in all fairness, should be paid back with the Casino/Resort/Gaming industry's support with Nevada's aging educational facilities. The little guy Nevada citizen has been hit hard enough and still YET to recover from this decade's economic disaster. The Casino/Resort/Gaming industries have continued to do very well, thank you, even recording record profits! Go figure!

    Blessings and Peace,

  2. Star,

    The Casino/Resort/Gaming industries have been paying about 50% or more of the total bills in this state forever. There are 2.7 Million people in the state and other industries that end up paying little to nothing.

    I do believe they have paid, and paid.

    You tell me any other state that one industry pays half the costs of the state?

    Why are you expecting on industry to keep paying more when they have covered the way of life for everyone living in this state all these years?

    You left California and came here and now you seem to mostly complain about this state. Where are you planning on moving next?

  3. VegasLee-It is a FACT that Nevada Mining pays LESS tax here in Nevada than any other state in the United States of America. Although this is an election year and the tides can change, it is also true of the Casino/Resort/Gaming industries imbedding within the Nevada State Constitution tax laws and policies that are more favorable to THEM than the People of Nevada. While it is true that the Mining industry has basically exploited the state's natural resources for a pittance, and the Casino/Resort/Gaming industry has done a bit better, it is still an issue that decades of the Nevada State Legislature has managed to avoid correcting any disparity. Nevada's infrastructure is in dire straits, with little to no hope of changing until Nevada's Constitution is addressed and updated to meet today's standards.

    For all intents and purposes, I classify myself as a native Californian that transplanted to Northern Nevada, who deeply cares about this great state and its People, its natural beauty, colorful history, and its future. At least I have the courage to represent myself with my name here, and I try not to make personal attacks (have you met a perfect human being on this planet yet?).

    Blessings and Peace,

  4. Star,

    No attack and fact is you did not bring mining up in your first post. You once again was on the gaming industry.

    You still did not address the fact that forever gaming has paid half the states bills. We have lived here for every, raised six kids here and have 12 grandkids here. We love this state but we don't sit on line blaming those that have paid half our way in this state.

    It is time for everyone to pitch in and stop depending on one industry to pay your way.

  5. The next Nevada State Legislative Session needs to direct their energies towards updating Nevada's way of generating tax revenue. That should be priority #1.

    Nevada is known to be the "Battle Born" state, a state whose Peoples desire to limit government's reach into their private lives.

    While Nevada grew in historic proportions, next to nothing was done to restructure tax laws and policies that directly impacted the good People of Nevada's lives as the infrastructure. Folks kept doing the same things they did, because "it was the way it was always done."

    Massive traffic jams, impedments to commerce began to force the issue. Urban sprawl was permitted to the highest bidders, without regard to future utility resources as WATER and POWER. It was "Build, baby build," non-stop, because of the fast money to be made and the greed to make the fast buck and blow town was the rule of the decade.

    Now, Nevada's future is at the crossroads. Will the People wake up to the fact that the very water they drink is at risk? Will the People look to strengthen what now remains of Nevada, and plan to improve communities rather than continuing to build more unsustainable ones? Even the beauty and grandeur of Red Rock is being threatened by human encroachment, and the once wild bands of burros and wild horses are being "relocated" to more favorable locations. Is this the future we want for our families and ourselves?

    If we don't change course, through being frugal, thoughtful, conserving, and investing, the Nevada we love will be only a memory. We elect and trust our lawmakers to tend to these things, but it hasn't happened. Gaming is moving on to greener pastures. The lack of People caring reflects in the quality of workforce here. But with gaming moving into technology and higher level of knowledge and thinking, the need for "service workers" and what they do has evolved and changed. Instead of being world leaders, now Nevada is in a "catching up" mode.

    Part of the positive changes have to do with attracting people here who are motivated, educated, and have some class. With government doing next to nothing with enforcing immigration laws or enforcing E-Verify, much of Southern Nevada has the feel of a third world country anymore. That could also be said about many parts of the USA and western region of the USA. It is scarry to walk down our sidewalks and feel safe, let alone it be a pleasureable experience. A person now arms themselves with hand sanitizer for obvious reasons these days.

    So, VegasLee, you are right: It IS time for everyone to pitch in (do their part), not expect hand out, but be the person to support the goodness and good things in life and around us. We cannot depend on any ONE industry to carry us or our state. We ALL must do our parts, and uplift one another. Cheers.

    Blessings and Peace,

  6. "As an aside, Nevada's Casino/Resort/Gaming industry is well on its way OUT of this state. In recent years, they have steadily moved their eggs OUT of the Nevada state basket; across state lines." (staralioflundnv)

    Strong statement, but you have heard of gaming expanding into states and countries?

    You do not sound like your pro-gaming, or recognize the goose that lays the golden egg.