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September 24, 2017

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Columnist Jeff German: Neal may paint unflattering picture of Las Vegas on fed panel

LIKE MANY OF US, state Sen. Joe Neal probably can't tell the difference between a Monet and a Renoir.

But the good Democrat from North Las Vegas sure knows how to get under the skin of casino mogul Steve Wynn, the man who has brought Las Vegas a glimpse of the great masters of art.

Neal led the charge last month that persuaded the Nevada Tax Commission not to give Wynn a tax break on nearly $300 million worth of masterpieces on view at the Bellagio.

You know that had to irk the Mirage Resorts Inc. chairman, who doubles as a licensed art dealer these days within the confines of his newest Strip megaresort.

Today, Wynn must be even angrier knowing that Neal unofficially has been selected to replace him as a panelist at next week's high-profile National Gambling Impact Study Commission meeting in Las Vegas.

Holy Picasso! What kind of portrait of Nevada gaming will Neal paint for the commission?

Scheduling conflicts, it seems, forced Wynn to decline an invitation to speak on a panel about employment within the casino industry. But instead of choosing another member of the industry to take Wynn's place, the nine-member commission's executive director, Timothy Kelly, named Neal, who has no experience at running a casino.

Neal's selection was pushed by former City Councilman Steve Miller, the eyes and ears in Nevada for the Rev. Tom Grey, the industry's most outspoken national critic.

In hindsight, Wynn must be wondering if he should have found a way to rework his schedule to accommodate the commission.

Neal, who advocates raising gaming's taxes and minimizing its role in politics, can be considered the industry's worst nightmare as a panelist.

"If they want to have Joe Neal on a panel to talk about taxation, that's fine," says Mirage Resorts Vice President Alan Feldman. "But gaming and employment? He's not in the gaming industry, so what could he possibly know about gaming and employment."

Neal begs to differ with Feldman.

"He's a nice guy, and I like him," Neal says. "But he's all wet on this one. I've lived here since 1954. I've been a legislator for 26 years. That should give me some measure of understanding about gaming."

Besides that, Neal explains, he once worked in the casino industry as a porter.

But though Neal says he's qualified to talk about gambling's impact on employment in the state, he appears more interested in telling the federal commission about his concerns that the industry has meddled too much in politics.

He says he wants to discuss his plans to pursue legislation next year to ban casinos from contributing to campaigns. Given Sheldon Adelson's $2 million foray into politics this year, some casino bosses may not be so opposed to that idea anymore.

No one within the industry, however, is calling Neal's proposal a great work of art just yet.

Though it's true the agenda for next week's meeting, which takes place Tuesday and Wednesday at the MGM Grand, hasn't been nailed to the canvas yet, incredibly it looks as though no one from the casino industry now is on the employment panel. Another panelist pushed by the anti-gaming forces, businessman Otis Harris, also has been chosen to speak. So have two members of the Culinary Union, the industry's largest union.

Feldman and others within the casino industry aren't very impressed with the way Kelly has organized next week's meeting, which is expected to attract attention from national news organizations. Six other panels -- touching on such subjects as sports betting, underage gambling, neighborhood gambling and regulation -- also have been scheduled.

"They've come to a town of experts, and they've asked very few of them to speak," Feldman charges.

It's not as though the industry has been given the brushoff, however.

Gaming and its regulators will be well-represented on the other panels. But even there, the industry's foes have managed to get their share of speakers.

A well-placed casino insider attributes those selections to "sloppy work" on the part of the commission's staff, which seems to have relied too heavily on the malcontents of the industry.

"They've made some embarrassing choices who are shrill at best, but mostly widely discredited," the insider says. "These people are the fringe of the fringe. We'll have quality people speaking. I think the contrast couldn't be greater."

Miller himself has been described as a piece of work by his casino detractors.

"We may not be politically correct," Miller says. "That's not our intent. Our intent is simply to tell the truth and hopefully slow down or curtail competition to our state's only industry outside our borders."

Neal says he's interested in telling the truth, too, even if it means insulting the casino mogul who has given Las Vegas a glimpse of Monet and Renoir.

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