It’s time to bet big in the polls

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As you read this column it’s some time around the November elections, so I thought it’d be worth looking at which gaming operators are betting big this coming election cycle. The gaming activity level in The South is relatively tame as only a couple of states have pressing gaming issues.

For example, in Georgia, all eyes are on the next legislative session when a group of horseracing enthusiasts will be pushing for an amendment to the Georgia constitution to allow for parimutuel wagering within that state. The money movement is primarily around Speaker of the House, David Ralston, and his leadership efforts as he essentially is the gatekeeper for that passage of the proposed amendment, which will need statewide voter approval.

The true hotbeds for gaming campaign activity are Alabama and Florida. The gambling industry in Alabama is hoping a new governor will usher in support for commercialization and regulation of the shuttered gambling industry in that state. Outgoing Gov. Bob Riley and his Gambling Task Force have shut down all electronic bingo casinos, save those operated on Indian lands pursuant to federal law.

To make matters worse, some of the highest profile figures in the industry, such as Country Crossing casino developer Ronnie Gilley and VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor, were indicted with a number of lobbyists and politicians for alleged vote-buying related to a failed effort during the 2010 legislative session to place a gaming expansion measure before the voters in Alabama.

As an indication of the kind of money being moved in Alabama one indicted state senator allegedly received in-kind political contributions from one gaming interest in excess of $200,000. In the governor’s race Democrat agriculture commissioner Ron Sparks is the leader in terms of contributions from individuals with gambling ties with more than $120,000. Unfortunately for Mr. Sparks, the gambling controversy is not helping his efforts as last polls showed him trailing by nearly 20 points to the anti-gambling Republican Robert Bentley.

In Florida, it appears to be business as usual as the major gambling players are stepping up and supporting the political efforts of candidates and political parties. While the giving season has yet to close at the writing of this column, gambling interests have given more than $2 million toward the 2010 elections. Leading the way as in past years is Mardi Gras Casino with contributions in excess of $250,000. Joining Mardi Gras on the list of power givers are the other parimutuel casinos that benefited from legislation decreasing the tax rate on slot machines in Florida with Isle of Capri chipping in around $200,000 in political contributions, Magic City at $100,000 and the horse tracks Calder and Gulfstream Park coming in at around $60,000 and $120,000, respectively. The South Florida parimutuels, however, are not the only power givers. The Jacksonville Greyhound racing circuit and Palm Beach Kennel Club are posting contributions in excess of $200,000 each. Even the PAC for the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders is registering an active election giving program with contributions of nearly $100,000 for the election cycle.

For online poker players, Poker Voters of America and the Poker Players Alliance have moved more than $20,000 in contributions, an amount that, while respectable, pales in comparison to the contributions by incumbent poker room operators. Despite boasting the largest operations in Florida and one of the most profitable casinos in the world, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is not yet registering in the top 10 givers from the gambling industry this election cycle.

In short, spending a couple of million a year on lobbyists and a couple of million more on political contributions means the gambling industry in Florida is planning on having a major seat at the table for next year’s legislative and political agenda. One thing to know if you’re going to bring your game to this table is that it is a game for big stacks and patient players where the money gets you in the game, but as folks in Alabama are finding out, it doesn’t guarantee you good cards.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A.  He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.