Lobbyist John Radcliffe waits to testify before the House Tourism Committee.
Image: matthew kain

While legislators weigh the fiscal benefits of a casino in Waikīkī, opponents say any real long-term benefits are a long shot.

Legal / The debate on legalizing gambling in Hawaii returns to the Legislature. Proponents say the tax revenues would add to the state’s bottom line; those opposed cite crime and addiction among their reasons. “I am against having gaming in Hawaii. I always have been, and I’m not trying to be a moralist. We have enough problems,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye in an e-mail to the Weekly. “If you add gaming to our local industries,” Inouye continued, “not only do you welcome all of the collateral social ills that come with casinos and sportsbooks, you also risk alienating those residents and visitors who oppose gambling.” Indeed, in a recent Hawai’i poll, 72 percent of respondents were against casino gambling at more than one location, while 64 percent opposed it at one location only.

Oddly, another recent poll of 1,000 residents, paid for by the Waikiki Improvement Association (WIA), found that 76 percent would be very or somewhat likely to visit an entertainment center in Waikiki that had show rooms, movie theatres and a casino.

“We asked this question because there is clearly less entertainment to attract local people to Waikiki, especially at night time, than in the past,” said WIA president Rick Egged in a statement. According to the same poll, however, 39 percent of respondents thought there was more than enough to do in Waikiki at night, while only 11 percent said there was not enough.

Fifty-eight percent of the WIA poll respondents did agree a casino would have positive economic benefits for the state, which faces a $130 million gap between the governor’s predicted budget for the year and the most recent projection by the state’s Council on Revenues (CR). But is playing economic catch-up the right reason to legalize gambling? Former Governor George Ariyoshi, who has always stood against it, thinks not. “I don’t believe that the gambling statute should be considered at a time when you really need money,” Ariyoshi told the Weekly. When asked about all the money that Hawaii residents spend in Las Vegas and whether or not he would like to see that money stay here, Ariyoshi’s opinion differs from that of casino allies. “It’s a trip, you know. People travel,” he says. “It’s not just casino gambling that attracts Hawaii people to [Las Vegas].”

Legislators are always looking for ways to increase revenues in order to avoid reductions in spending. Moreover, due to the decennial reapportionment of the legislative districts, they will all be up for reelection in 2012–so they definitely don’t want to have to raise taxes. House Bill 2788 and its companion Senate Bill 2210 seek to legalize gambling and grant a 20-year license for a stand-alone casino in Waikiki. The licensee would pay a 15 percent tax on all gross receipts as well as a $150 million, non-refundable license fee.

Concluding a House Tourism Committee hearing for HB2788 on Monday, Feb. 13, Chairperson Tom Brower recommended that the bill be deferred, meaning that it is likely dead for this legislative session. The majority of those who gave testimony, including the Honolulu Police Department, the Office of Mayor Carlisle and religious groups, were against the bill. Grace Furukawa from the League of Women Voters testified that the projected number of casino jobs for locals is unrealistic. “You don’t need anybody in front of the slot machine to make it work,” she said.

But although the bill was halted, lobbyist John Radcliffe of Capitol Consultants of Hawaii (CCH)–who has been pushing for a casino for 12 years–remains hopeful, saying SB2210 still has a chance of being picked up in coming weeks.

“[The casino] wants to pay to come in. They want to be taxed at a far higher rate than anyone else, and they want to hire thousands of people, says Radcliffe, who is currently lobbying for Marketing Resource Group (MRG) of Michigan, which represents several gaming interests there.

The last testimony for HB2788 came from Tom Shields, director of MRG, who showed up at the last minute, bag in hand, as if he’d just got off a plane. “We are not new to this effort to build a casino in Hawaii,” said Shields. “We were here 10 years ago. [If] that legislation [had] been passed 10 years ago, over the last nine years Hawaii would have taken in about $1.3 billion in additional state revenues.”

Committee member Rep. Cindy Evans questioned whether or not HB2788 was a special interest piece of legislature introduced specifically for MRG and the gaming interests they represent. “I’m just telling you that our group is willing to invest in this under the proposed legislation,” Shields replied, adding that he was representing the same interests that had lobbied for casinos in Ko Olina and Waikiki 10 years ago.

Radcliffe is a high roller in campaign contributions to state legislators, having donated $43,591 across the board in 2010. After the hearing on HB2788, he could be observed joking with Rep. Joe Souki, the introducer of the bill. So what if the bill had passed? Would Gov. Abercrombie sign it into law?

“Overall, the governor has not taken a stance on legalizing gambling in Hawaii,” Donalyn Dela Cruz, the governor’s deputy director of communications, told the Weekly. “If a bill was to reach his desk at the end of the session, he would take a look at it. If it’s the will of the legislature, then the governor would strongly consider it.”

Although, Radcliffe’s political donations notably include a $6,000 donation to the Abercrombie campaign. Another gem from the WIA poll: 63 percent of residents agree that once the first casino opens, more will follow, no matter what regulations are initially in place. Perhaps a state lottery would be a better fit?

“To me, one form of gambling leads to another,” Ariyoshi said, and Inouye, too, stands firm across the board. “No new revenue stream is worth fooling with our visitor industry or inviting negative influences into our community,” the senator concluded.