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Gaming vs. gaming?


It’s amazing at times to consider how much gambling the Nevada Resort Association wants to prevent, rather than to promote.

It’s less amazing when you realize most of the gaming the casino association opposes takes place in small bars and taverns, which swim like so many minnows alongside the big sharks of the Strip and neighborhood casinos.

A pair of bills heavily backed by the Nevada Resort Association at the Nevada Legislature seeks to put new conditions on restricted gaming licenses, including those issued to bars and taverns, which allow 15 or fewer video gambling machines.

Assembly Bill 360 would stipulate all new restricted licenses — including those that must be issued when a bar or tavern is sold to a new owner — must feature 2,500 square feet of space, a 25-seat restaurant and a kitchen open at least 12 hours a day.

The bill also imposes a new scheme of taxation on any company that owns 500 or more slot machines, including slot route operators and corporate owners of bars such as PT’s Pubs. Under the bill, those companies would pay the same taxes as unrestricted gambling licensees — think Strip casinos — instead of per-machine fees.

However, those companies would not enjoy any of the benefits of an unrestricted license, such as, say, having more than 15 machines in a bar, or adding a sports book.

And speaking of sports books, the bill would also eliminate sports gambling kiosks from taverns, which have been operating for years based on administrative approval from the head of the Gaming Control Board.

Senate Bill 416 is very similar to its Assembly cousin, but it would also require retrofitting taverns that have been operating since 1990 to bring them up to the new standards.

“They will put people out of business,” said Sean Higgins, a lobbyist for an association of restricted license holders. “This is nothing but a money grab by the [Nevada Resort Association] and its members.”

Higgins — who himself owns a tavern with a restricting gaming license in Las Vegas — said casinos see smaller license holders as competition. “If the locals casinos could put all small taverns out of business, they would,” Higgins said.

Resort association lobbyist Pete Ernaut replied that it’s a simple matter of law: Restricted licensees are not supposed to compete with big casinos, which is why their licenses limit them to 15 machines and no other games. The association contends sports kiosks constitute another game.

“Those kiosks are a sports book,” he said. “The law is clear: Bars get 15 machines, period. We’re simply strengthening it. Obviously, it’s eroded over time.”

And it’s not just Ernaut who says so: At a 2011 hearing before the state Gaming Commission, Chairman Peter Bernhard said state law prohibits multiple games at restricted license locations, and a full-service sports kiosk (in which players can insert bets and collect winnings on site) constitutes a separate game.

“So we don’t have statutory guidance except to say that you can only have slot machines in a restricted location, and no other game is allowed,” Bernhard said. “Well, this is another game.”

The matter has not come before the commission, however. At that 2011 hearing, a lawyer for one sports kiosk company suggested the Legislature be given a chance to weigh in this year.

Hence the bills, and the battle. “It’s a simple public policy statement that the law is the law and we expect it to be upheld,” Ernaut said.

But the NRA is also re-writing the law. And while there may be public policy arguments in favor of the change, it’s also no coincidence the changes the NRA wants favor its members and disadvantage its competitors.

For the NRA, it’s not just about promoting gambling. It’s also about preventing some.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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