The debate over gambling has taken a backseat in the presidential race, but experts say it is bound to emerge. As the economy sputters, the elected president will likely face intense pressure to give states added power to extract revenue through gambling.
"The president and Congress are going to be faced with proposals both to legalize every form of gambling and also outlaw all the gambling," said I. Nelson Rose, a Whittier College law professor who specializes in gaming issues.
Budget-shackled states are now passing pro-gambling legislation at a more than 50 percent rate for the first time, Rose said. The tide for online poker surged recently when the Department of Justice loosened its stance on Internet gaming for states.
The events are setting off alarms for critics, who say the societal harm will outweigh the profits. "Anyone serious about getting America heading in the right direction has to get government out of the predatory gambling business," said Les Bernal, the executive director of the nonprofit Stop Predatory Gambling.
Neither President Obama nor the top contenders in the Republican campaign are tipping their hand as to where they stand, and none of them answered requests for comment. All the more reason to look into their relationships with the gambling industry -- and what they might do next.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney voiced support for slot machine parlors to shrink a $3 billion deficit. He later opposed the slots, explaining that his revitalized state no longer had to suffer gambling's social costs. Romney told the Las Vegas Sun in November that he would clarify his stance on online gambling before this year's Iowa Caucus, but that did not happen. Analysts say Romney's Mormon faith puts him in a "darned if you do, darned if you don't" position: declare support for gambling and risk offending the church and fellow members, but deny support and risk angering states that need the money. Experts did not put much stock in Romney's much-ridiculed offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 on a health care matter. "I can't see Romney supporting gambling. I just can't see it," said Chris Costigan, publisher of Gambling911.com, a site that has tracked legislators' gambling records. Two of Romney's top donors, through PACs and individuals, are Goldman Sachs, which owns the parent company of the Stratosphere hotel-casino in Las Vegas, and Marriott International, which has casinos on some properties. But both also have much broader holdings.
The former House speaker is a tough read. Las Vegas Sands casino chief Sheldon Adelson contributed $5 million earlier this month to a pro-Gingrich super PAC, and individuals associated with the Sands have given a casino-industry-leading $421,600 to the Republican Party. If it can be assumed that Gingrich owes allegiance to Adelson, how does that manifest itself? On the one hand, Adelson presides over a brick-and-mortar multi-billion dollar gambling empire from Bethlehem, Pa., to Singapore. But on the other, Adelman has come out against online gambling because he was not convinced the technology could block children from using it. Adversaries say the Sands is ill-equipped to compete if Internet gaming ever gets the full go-ahead, so Adelman is merely protecting his investment. Does Gingrich declare as pro land-based gambling and anti-online gambling? Or does he bend to evangelical interests and stop all gambling progress on the federal end? Supporters of sports-betting should take note that Gingrich was listed as a cosponsor of the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. The law remains on the books to stop 46 states from booking bets on sporting events. In the latest challenge to the law, a bill is set to be introduced by New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D) on Monday to make New Jersey the fifth state that can host sports betting.
As a two-term Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum faced no big votes on gambling issues, according to the voting log votesmart.org. Santorum received a $65,000 consulting fee from the American Continental Group lobbying firm, which represents the American Gaming Association and other companies unrelated to gambling. The American Gaming Association could not comment on any part of this article because its president and CEO, Frank Fahrenkopf, is a co-chair on the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, a spokeswoman said. As for where Santorum might lean if a gambling bill passed his desk, both sides of the issue say they believe the ultra-conservative Catholic would veto any expansion measures.
While Paul seems to be fading as a major-party candidate, it should be noted that pro- and anti-gambling forces agree the self-avowed libertarian would be the biggest champion of more legalized gambling. The Texas congressman co-sponsored a bill last summer to legalize online poker, and has testified that government should not be interfering with the Internet. "He's a relentless advocate for utilizing online gambling, but he doesn't gamble at all himself," said Stop Predatory Gambling's Bernal. "He has no idea what it means for the government to be in the gambling business."
The president's administration won friends in the gambling community when the Justice Department inadvertently paved the way for online casinos and card rooms. On Dec. 23, 2011, the DOJ announced it was reversing its interpretation of the Wire Act of 1961, giving online lottery sales the green light. By extension, the ruling gave other Internet gambling ventures a qualified go-ahead within state boundaries. Rose called it Obama's Christmas gift. But a less gambling-friendly Obama emerged in April, when the F.B.I. shut down three major online poker sites operating in the United States. An indictment included charges of bank fraud and money laundering. Customers of one operation, Full Tilt, left $150 million on the virtual table and have yet to recover their money. Obama, a recreational blackjack and poker player, has sent his share of mixed signals on gambling. He voted against casino expansion as an Illinois state senator in 1999. Although he later voted to loosen restrictions at already-existing riverboat casinos, he railed against the "moral cost" of gambling. He refused to accept donations from gambling interests in 2004 and 2006. But by the time he mounted his campaign for the presidency in 2008, he was receiving the 10th highest gambling industry contributions among U.S. senators, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Obama's desk has not seen any significant gambling legislation thus far. Rose, the law professor, believes Obama would reluctantly support gambling expansion to inject life into the economy. Some advocates believe intrastate computer gambling will become a reality in 2012, starting with Nevada. The role that the president might play is anyone's guess, but a pro-gambling commander in chief certainly would not hurt their cause.