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September 16, 2014

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Jeff German: Gaming wins big time in D.C.

IF they had an option, gaming industry leaders would rather Congress poke its nose into someone else's business. But that's not in the cards.

So last week, the industry and its high-powered team of lobbyists, headed by ex-GOP Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, made the best of things. They did some masterful backroom dealing in the Senate to reduce the odds of a national gambling study embarrassing the industry.

One leading casino mogul, Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn, was so impressed with the hand the industry played that he proudly proclaimed the study will "end up being a beauty contest."

On Wednesday, with gaming's friends making parliamentary moves rarely seen on Capitol Hill, the Senate passed a bill that restricts the federal commission's ability to issue subpoenas, protects the privacy of the industry's high-rollers and takes much of the panel's investigative work out of the realm of politics.

Once a deal was struck to protect the industry, the bill moved to the floor and out of the Senate with lightning speed.

It goes to the House this week, where it's likely to pass in its same form.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who vowed to take care of the industry while being wined and dined by Wynn in Las Vegas in May, apparently has held up his end of the bargain.

Gingrich was kept abreast of the behind-the-scenes dealings last week in the Senate, and word is he has signed off on the bill.

The speaker, if he hasn't already done it, likely will inform Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., gaming's chief nemesis, that he supports the watered-down Senate version.

That will leave Wolf with little opportunity to amend the bill more to his liking. He'll be able to take credit, however, for getting the study passed and whipping the nation into a frenzy.

Even President Clinton, who vowed here last month not to back a witchhunt of the industry, is ready to sign the legislation and make way for the appointment of a nine-member commission.

That's where the next battle will take place. Pro and anti-gaming forces are sure to lock horns over the makeup of the panel.

As it turned out, the intense Senate negotiations occurred while Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan were creating a stir on the Hill. The senators were holding the Senate hostage for several days with a filibuster to block a vote on whether to store high-level nuclear waste at the Nevada Test site.

Top Senate Republicans -- Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the Governmental Affairs Committee chairman who shepherded the gaming bill through the Senate -- were infuriated with Reid and Bryan for stalling the Senate's business.

That led to some anxious moments for Fahrenkopf and company, who worried the anger might spill over to the sensitive gaming talks.

But it never did.

Stevens, with the help of Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., ended up helping the industry get what it wanted out of the bill. Reid and Bryan, though they were obligated to vote against the study, participated in the dealings as they unfolded.

As the talks intensified, Breaux and Thompson became intermediaries between the industry and Sens. Paul Simon, D-Ill., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chief Senate sponsors of the bill.

In the end, Simon and Lugar were persuaded to allow Lott to bring the measure to a floor vote without amendments. It passed by unanimous consent in a matter of minutes.

Two of the biggest concessions the industry got dealt with the way the gaming commission will conduct its work.

Problem gambling, the biggest weakness exploited by the industry's detractors, will be researched by the National Academy of Sciences. That will allow for findings based more on scientific data than emotional rhetoric.

The rest of the grunt work will be assigned to the obscure Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, chaired by former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a friend of gaming.

By no small coincidence, Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, is a member of the ACIR, which is dominated by state and local, rather than federal government representatives.

"We think we got the maximum protection for the industry," says Fahrenkopf. "We think this is the best we can do."

Considering the hysteria over gaming in Washington, he's probably right.

* Steve Wynn, the nation's most visible gaming executive, has a wiser attitude toward politics.

The Mirage Resorts boss, attracting national attention for his involvement in the political process, says he has learned that he needs to be even-handed with both parties.

"My job is to make sure that both sides understand us," Wynn says. "That has come into focus to me in the last year."

Until recently, Wynn has been strongly backing Republican political causes. He donated $250,000 to the RNC and helped Bob Dole, the GOP's presidential candidate, raise $500,000.

But that was before President Clinton jumped ahead of Dole by as much as 24 points in the polls and the GOP-controlled Congress started looking at the impact of gambling on America.

Lately, Wynn has been making overtures to the president and the Democrats. He even has played golf with Clinton in Washington.

Wynn -- who helped found the American Gaming Association, the industry's Washington lobby -- says he now plans to donate to both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee this year.

He won't say how much he'll contribute, but he acknowledges it'll be six figures.

"This is not Steve Wynn's money," he says. "This is business."

Wynn says he has an obligation to his 18,000 employees and 15,000 stockholders to make sure political leaders understand what benefits his company.

"The industry has sort of matured and realized that we have a responsibility to get to Washington and, before someone else defines us, define ourselves," he explains.

"We have to deal with the propaganda and the misinformation or we're going to be eaten by it."

Those are wise words from a guy with a new attitude toward the political process.

JEFF GERMAN is a senior investigative reporter. His column also appears in the Las Vegas SUN on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at 259-4067 or on the Internet at [email protected]

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