GAMBLING U.S.A. Money talks: The gaming industry is becoming a major force in Washington through the financing of congressional elections.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AS LEGISLATION to tax and study the gambling industry moves through Congress, casino operators and gaming technology firms are cementing their status as major players in the high-stakes game of financing congressional elections.

In contributions through party "soft money" -- as well as direct individual and PAC contributions to candidates -- those who make money by enticing others to lose theirs have become a major force in the Washington fund-raising scene.

The most dramatic recent increase is in soft money, the funds that are allowed to be given in unlimited amounts to parties for generic "party building" activities.

In the 1992 election cycle, gambling firms anted up a respectable $457,600 to the two major national parties: $336,800 to Democrats and $120,800 to the Republicans.

In the 1994 cycle, however, the parties -- and particularly Republicans -- hit the jackpot.

Gambling interests gave a whopping $1,642,200 in soft money, an increase of 259 percent over the previous two years, according to a recent Common Cause report.

And, like most business PACs, the individuals and firms affiliated with the gambling industry made a marked shift to the right.

Of their 1994 total, $933,400 went to the Republican Party, $708,900 to the Democrats.

Twenty-five individuals and firms gave soft money in the 1994 cycle, according to Common Cause.

Gaming industry representatives say the reason for the increase is simple: increased legislative interest in gambling at the federal level, especially since the Clinton administration came to town.

Topping the list of soft-money givers last cycle was the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe, which operates the hugely successful Foxwoods casino complex in eastern Connecticut.

The tribe gave $365,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $100,000 to the Republican National Committee.

The Pequots were followed by the Las Vegas-based Golden Nugget and its chairman, Stephen Wynn, who gave a collective total of $255,000, all of it to the RNC.

But like smart gamblers, several gaming firms hedged their bets in the last cycle.

Hollywood Park, the Inglewood, Calif., racetrack, for example, gave $7,500 to the DNC and $25,000 to its Republican counterparts.

Political action committees associated with gaming interests have also increased their contributions in recent election cycles.

According to figures compiled for Roll Call by the Center for Responsive Politics, casino PACs gave a total of $348,900 to Congressional candidates in the 1994 cycle, an increase of 41 percent over the previous cycle's giving.

And PAC contributions in the 1992 cycle represented a significant 27 percent increase over the '90 cycle, when casinos doled out $194,600.

The most generous casino PAC of the 1994 cycle was Harrah's, which gave $28,700 to Democratic congressional candidates and $79,400 to Republicans.

Harrah's was followed by Circus Circus enterprises with $54,000 total and Caesar's World with $43,100.

Individual contributions from employees of the gaming industry are harder to track, but the latest figures available from the CRP, for the 1992 cycle, document a total of $817,000 given by industry employees to federal candidates and gaming industry PACs.

One of those contributors was none other than freshman GOP Rep. John Ensign of Nevada, who worked for his family's Gold Strike casino before he won election to Congress last fall.

Mr. Ensign, now a foot soldier in the Republican revolution, gave $2,000 each in 1991 to Democratic Sens. Harry Reid and Richard H. Bryan of Nevada.

Not surprisingly, the biggest recipients of gaming PAC contributions in the 1994 cycle were those with casinos in their districts.

The top casino PAC recipient was then-Rep. Jim Bilbray, a Nevada Democrat, with $32,500; he was trailed by Mr. Ensign, the man who beat him, with $31,500 in PAC dollars.

Other big recipients were Bill Gormley, an unsuccessful House Republican primary candidate in New Jersey, with $15,000, and Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, a Nevada Republican, with $18,200.

Despite the influx of campaign cash, gaming contributions are not an unmitigated plus for candidates who receive them; the perceived taint from a controversial industry has been known to become a campaign issue.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican presidential candidate, for example, came under fire this year for receiving gaming contributions while he was criticizing the industry.

Mr. Lugar accepted $1,500 from the Pritzker family, owner of Hyatt Hotels, which operates casinos.

And the issue is even more controversial in many state-level elections; in Louisiana, for example, a number of legislators are under investigation for taking bribes from gaming interests.

Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice, a Republican, refused to take gaming money in his successful re-election bid this year.

But controversy didn't stop Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is actively courting the vote of the religious right in his own presidential bid, from collecting more than $450,000 at a Las Vegas fund-raiser last summer organized by Mr. Wynn, according to Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association.

The Christian Coalition this year itself organized an effort against a proposal for riverboat gambling in Virginia, criticizing "gambling lobbyists" and alluding to the industry's generous political contributions.

The industry's strong presence in the financing of federal campaigns comes just as gambling is coming under increased congressional scrutiny.

What first "woke up" the industry, said Mark Emerson, chief of staff to Representative Ensign, was the Clinton administration's floating of a proposal to finance its health care reform proposal with a 4 percent gaming industry tax.

"It was unfair they were singling out one industry," he said.

Legislation to establish a "Gambling Impact Study Commission" is currently moving through Congress, backed by Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, and Mr. Lugar in the Senate and Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, in the House.

"There has been scant attention, at any level of government, to the larger and often troubling policy implications that accompany the gambling boom," said Mr. Simon.

"This one-time commission would simply lay all the facts on the table, so that the people and their elected representatives can intelligently decide whether more and more gambling is worth the costs."

Mr. Simon himself has taken money from gaming PACs, such as Bally Manufacturing and Circus Circus.

Of more immediate financial interest to the gambling industry is a proposal to tax the revenues of the casinos that now operate on Indian reservations.

The gaming industry itself is split over the issue.

Some casino companies feel the Indians are currently given an unfair competitive advantage and support taxation; others actually run Indian casinos and oppose the tax.

Washington's relatively new interest in gambling has been met with a typically Washington response: the formation of interest groups.

Inside the House, Mr. Ensign, joined by Ms. Vucanovich and Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican whose district includes Atlantic City, inaugurated the Congressional Gaming Caucus, which now includes 18 members.

According to Mr. Emerson, the caucus serves as a "think tank" or "information exchange" on a variety of issues related to gambling.

Membership "doesn't mean you're pro-gaming or anti-gaming," he added.

Gambling's other major new presence in Washington is the June 1995 opening of the D.C. office of the American Gaming Association, headed by Mr. Fahrenkopf, who served as Republican national chairman in the 1980s and founded the gaming law section of the American Bar Association.

"You really have to look at it like any other industry," said Mr. Fahrenkopf, a native Nevadan.

The industry employs, directly and indirectly, about 1 million people and had gross revenues of about $40 billion last year, he said.

"It's a legal industry, and the people in the industry have the right to make contributions like everybody else," said Mr. Fahrenkopf.

Benjamin Sheffner wrote this article for Roll Call, a weekly that covers Congress.

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