Casinos going all in for 2016

Casinos going all in for 2016

The $240 billion U.S. gambling industry is looking to bolster its political influence with a national effort to mobilize workers behind its policy agenda heading into the 2016 elections.

The American Gaming Association (AGA), a trade group representing mainly casinos and lotteries, boasts a growing membership covering 40 states, and the trade group’s leadership vowed Wednesday to increase its clout in Washington, despite the loss of retiring Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidGOP frustrated by slow pace of Trump staffing This week: Congress awaits Comey testimony Will Republicans grow a spine and restore democracy? MORE (D-Nev.), an influential congressional ally.

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“We’re going to be more active in political discussion,” MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren told reporters Wednesday at the AGA’s shiny new D.C. digs.

“Because, as it turns out — you look at any battleground state in the United States, it’s more than likely that they have gaming there, with thousands and thousands of employees,” he added. “And those employees have a voice.”

AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman said the group plans to meet with all the 

presidential contenders and speak to them about the industry’s economic importance, and to correct what he says are misconceptions about the casino world. 

“People still have a perception of [gaming] being more niche than it actually has become,” Freeman said.

The industry is worth $240 billion in the U.S., supporting roughly 1.7 million jobs.

The group will be holding town hall meetings with gaming workers, signing them up to vote and providing them with “tools they need to engage,” Freeman says, including alerting them when a candidate does not support policies in the AGA’s best interest. 

Soon, it will hold an event in Iowa, the first presidential caucus state. The event will be the first for the group’s “Gaming Votes” initiative outside of Nevada. 

Atop the group’s legislative agenda are priorities held by many of the nation’s leading business groups: tax reform, immigration reform and patent reform.

The AGA will also be working on cybersecurity and financial regulatory issues, and working to combat illegal gambling, which it says takes important tax dollars away from state and federal budgets and masks other crimes like money laundering. Freeman, the former executive vice president and chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, also wants to enact policies that boost travel and expand the visa waiver program.

Compared with business heavyweights such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers, the AGA has not been a major force in terms of filling campaign coffers.

The AGA’s PAC spent $152,250 during the two years leading up to the 2012 presidential election, a low dollar amount for an industry of its size. 

In the 2014 election cycle — a pivotal one for Senate Democrats and Reid, the industry’s staunchest backer — the group spent $72,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“The PAC is a vital element of our efforts to engage the political process,” Freeman said on Wednesday. 

“That said, the assets that really separate us from other industries are the employees, the presence in battleground states, the properties — where many members [of Congress] like to go, like to participate in various events,” he said, “and we need to use those assets to our advantage.”

Freeman said that as the AGA’s membership grows, the PAC is likely to be endowed with a larger balance sheet and will likely be more active.

“Every industry has a PAC, every industry has dollars,” Freeman added. “Is ours big enough? No. But we’re going to really focus on the assets that make our industry unique, if that’s what can separate us.”

Murren, in those two cycles combined, individually donated $63,900 to federal PACs, according to records kept with the Federal Election Commission. Meanwhile, the industry’s biggest spender, mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands, spent more than $55.3 million between 2011 and 2014.

The AGA’s new offices — located steps away from the Verizon Center, where Washington sports teams compete — are complete with card tables and slot machines. In the lobby, a running ticker of sports scores hugs the ceiling. 

When the organization had an open house for the new space in February, about a dozen members of Congress attended.

“This office space is a good example of how things are changing,” Freeman said. “We look forward to holding more events here.”

Despite the group’s growth, losing Reid makes raising its profile all the more important for the AGA, both in Congress and among the growing field of 2016 presidential candidates.

“He has been a staunch supporter of our industry, the most supportive elected official in the history of the gaming industry in Congress, forever,” Murren said, before quickly adding, “By the way, I’m a Republican, just to be clear here.”

The AGA, though, said it would not be playing an active role in the election to fill Reid’s seat. 

“Certainly, what we can count on is members from Nevada are strong champions of gaming — Democrats and Republicans alike,” Freeman said. “We’re confident that no matter who the winner is, we’ll work with them to champion the industry.”