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Nevada will get 75 percent of unclaimed slot winnings

Casinos in Las Vegas have made millions of dollars every year from unclaimed slot machine tickets when players who win a few dollars fail to cash them out.

But starting July 1, the state will receive the majority of that revenue as the Legislature taps those funds to help balance the state’s budget.

Under Assembly Bill 219, approved by lawmakers in the end-of-session rush, the state will receive 75 percent of those unclaimed winnings; 25 percent will stay with the casino. An estimated $17 million in revenue from unclaimed tickets was built into Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $6.2 billion biennial budget.

The Nevada Resort Association initially opposed the measure but abruptly dropped its opposition after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled last month that using county and school district funds to cover shortfalls violated a constitutional provision that "all laws should be general and operate uniformly throughout the state."

"We were concerned about the impact on our relationships with returning guests," said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. "Many of our members honored tickets after their expiration and the resorts would be explaining that the guest’s funds had gone to the state."

Officials of several Las Vegas-based hotel-casino companies declined comment on the measure Tuesday, or deferred to Valentine as their industry spokeswoman.

Valentine said the bill was initially viewed as a gaming revenue tax and, as such, should have been discussed as part of a larger tax and revenue package to fund the state budget.

"There was legislation that would have broadened the tax base, but it did not pass," Valentine said. "There were also concerns about the mechanics. However, many of those concerns regarding the implementation and tax calculations were addressed in the final bill."

The 75-25 split was a compromise. When first introduced by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, the bill called for 100 percent going to the state.

The bill could generate as much as $35 million for the 2011-13 biennium — a fraction of the industry’s $10.4 billion total gross gaming revenue in Nevada last year, according to the state Gaming Control Board.

Richard Wells, president of Wells Gaming Research in Reno, called the idea of tapping unclaimed winnings to balance the budget a "bad one."

"They were looking for revenue sources everywhere and anywhere they could," said Wells, adding it was a "bad idea" not to consider any additional taxes or fees.

He said he doubts the new law would place an added financial burden on the gaming industry.

The bill requires the Nevada Gaming Commission to adopt regulations regarding the "retention and tracking" of slot machine vouchers and the payment of the 75-25 split of the vouchers between the state and gaming companies. The bill also applies to any slot machine voucher issued on or after July 1.

The Assembly on Sunday voted 40-2 in favor of the bill, followed by a 14-7 Senate vote on Monday to approve the measure. It now goes to the governor for his consideration.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at csieroty@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893.

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