Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2014

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WHERE I STAND:

Come on, Ensign! It’s time to help Nevada

Republican senator needs to help Reid push for legal Internet poker

Las Vegas went all in. It is too early to tell whether we will get a bad beat.

As best I can tell, that is poker talk for swinging for the fences. The bad beat part is what happens when our skill is overcome by luck, bad luck.

First, a bit of history. For as long as I have paid attention and can remember, Las Vegas has been on a meteoric rise, punctuated by periods of precipitous drops, only to be saved every decade or so by a variety of white knights coming to the rescue.

We can go all the way back to the early 1950s, when the conventionally wise folks wrote us off as being overbuilt, overexposed by not-so-flattering hearings into mob activity and nary a clue from where our next tourists would come. How could we know that all that publicity coupled with some new “banking” relationships would give us a growth spurt that would last another decade?

In the late 1960s, we were in the doldrums again. Enter the country’s wealthiest man, billionaire Howard Hughes, who had a plan. He bought out the mobbed-up casinos that were bringing federal heat upon us. He invested many millions of dollars, making us more legitimate and more attractive to mainstream America. Not only were we saved again, but we also thrived as new financial resources followed Hughes’ lead.

Of course, we all know what happened when Las Vegas hit the skids again through the 1980s. Steve Wynn built a mirage in the desert and transformed us once again. The last decade of the 20th century and much of the new century were record-setting.

Lately, though, Las Vegas has been facing its greatest challenge. There are no tourists when people are out of work. There are no tourists spending freely and enjoying all that Las Vegas has to offer when they don’t know if their jobs will exist next month, or if their businesses will be around next year, or if their futures will be all or close to all that they planned and worked for.

And for sure there is no money to build a hotel, an attraction or an adventure when the banks have shut down or, at least, shut the phones off to gaming companies looking for help to make it through the tough times. And there are no signs of life anywhere near the half-built behemoths that lie dormant on the Strip, waiting for better times. And waiting.

At a time like this, Las Vegas could use a new champion, a new Howard Hughes, a new visionary like Steve Wynn. A new and much-needed shot in the arm. But this time, that someone or something not only needs to bring millions of new tourists and gamblers looking for some fun, but it also needs to do it in a way that doesn’t require banks, billions in investments and more bricks and mortar.

That something is Internet poker.

It may not seem like it, but the opportunity that Sen. Harry Reid has been trying to provide for Nevada’s gaming industry the past couple of weeks is a giant leap into the brave new world of virtual gaming. For that, you don’t need thousands of new rooms, you don’t need hundreds of acres of Strip land that you can’t get and certainly can’t afford.

No, all we need is for the federal government to recognize that millions of Americans are gambling illegally every hour of every day on Internet sites owned and operated abroad. And we need that business to happen right here, in the United States of America. We need the federal government to allow Internet poker, to tax it, regulate it and watch it thrive.

The current situation is similar to Prohibition. It sounded like a good idea, but it didn’t work. And the only thing happening as a result of federal laws prohibiting gambling on the Internet is that companies outside of Nevada, outside of the United States, are making all the money. They are doing it without being sufficiently regulated and without paying taxes — at a time when we could use the revenue! And it is happening when the natural providers for such things are right here. They are the casino companies that have invested billions of dollars building this industry that is being shipped — like our manufacturing base — overseas.

Getting this deal done requires a team around Reid. Reps. Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley have been there and are doing all they can. Even Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval is weighing in. What didn’t happen and hasn’t happened, though, is the willing and active participation of Nevada’s other senator, John Ensign.

Ensign’s Republican colleague from Arizona, Jon Kyl, has been, shall we say, difficult. But not so difficult that a few words of encouragement from Nevada’s junior senator couldn’t overcome. While Kyl was “saying no” to thousands of new jobs for Nevadans, Ensign was MIA.

This Internet poker bill is Nevada’s opportunity to pull itself out of its mess. It isn’t just thousands of jobs, it’s millions of dollars and a strong measure of hope for tens of thousands of Nevadans out of work. It is, in short, this decade’s answer to what ails us.

You would think that Ensign could do this one little thing. After all, John is trying to show Nevada he cares, that he wants to serve another term and that he works hard for the people of this state. You would think he could do this one little thing and convince Kyl to let Nevada help itself.

Small disclosure: If a bill passes, my family stands a chance of playing in the new gambling world. I hope. But so does everyone else who lives and works in this state. Everyone gains from the legalization of Internet poker, just as Nevadans have benefited from the other events in our history that took us from the depths of despair to the envy of the world.

So when you hear people tell you about how hard Harry is working for his home state, you hear right. What you don’t hear in Washington is why his colleague, Ensign, isn’t doing very much when we really could use his help.

I have enough faith in Reid to believe that he will get this Internet poker thing done this year. It will be much harder next year because those who dislike Nevada will be in charge of the purse strings in Washington. Harry’s chances of success, Nevada’s chances of success, will be much greater if his junior colleague steps up and puts his job description where his mouth is. Ensign wants to earn his re-election? How about getting this one little thing done as the first of his voter litmus tests on the way to recovery status.

Come on, John, do something for us at home. Show up for work and let the Jon Kyls of your world know that you mean business ... for Nevada. Our state can’t handle another bad beat right now.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.