Video gambling supporters flood legislators with messages

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2000

JUNEAU -- State Rep. Gene Therriault is wondering why he's getting public opinion messages from people who don't remember sending them. A campaign by the bar, hotel and restaurant lobby is the answer.

The Cabaret, Hotel and Restaurant Retail Association has collected signatures on thousands of 4-by-6-inch cards stating their support for the legalization of charitable video gambling. The group is depositing the cards in Legislative Information Offices, where state employees type them up and send them electronically to legislators.

After seeing familiar names of constituents on the messages, Therriault said, his staff called some of them back. Not all realized a message had been sent in their name, Therriault said.

''I'm not sure that the level of understanding is there,'' he said.

Therriault's staff last week downloaded 380 messages sent Feb. 3, 4, and 7 from Interior residents. Therriault said 320 of them had the same message stating support for ''charitable gaming reform and revenue enhancement.''

One was from Hank Hove, and Therriault wondered why the mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough would use a public opinion message -- known as a POM -- instead of the telephone. Hove told Therriault he hadn't sent the message.

CHARR Executive Director Kace McDowell said her organization has collected thousands of the cards that members of her group and other associations are distributing in bars, liquor stores and other establishments.

''I've got over 10,000 just in Anchorage,'' she said. She dropped off about a thousand Wednesday at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office to be typed up and sent to all legislators.

Therriault said he's sure CHARR is appreciative of the free duplication and distribution of its messages at state expense.

''There's no way it's not eating up time or eating up resources,'' Therriault said.

Therriault said his office generally does not receive many POMs early in the session and probably only about 50 per day over a hot topic. CHARR is not the first group to flood legislators with messages but he has not been dazzled by the video gambling campaign.

''They can have an effect,'' Therriault said of POMs. ''They have more of an effect when I know they're real messages from people, a message they've put thought into.''

HB 182, sponsored by Rep. Pete Kott, R-Anchorage, calls for the state to buy video gaming machines and lease them to nonprofit organizations. The state would maintain the machines and monitor the activity via a central communications system. It would also allow gambling machines on state ferries.

Charities would get 30 percent of the profits after payouts. The vendor, such as a bar owner, would get 30 percent, cities or municipalities would get 20 percent and the state would receive 20 percent. The bill also would allow video gambling on state ferries.

McDowell said the lobbying campaign started last session. If there's confusion over the POMs, she said, it may be because people don't recall specific bill numbers.

She said using POMs was a more effective means than turning in petitions or merely sending the signed cards. Legislators respond to POMs and video gaming advocates get an idea about how a legislator feels about the bill, she said.

The bill itself, McDowell said, is widely misunderstood and is actually a reform bill. She said the measure will stop abuses now associated with pull tabs and allow charities to receive their fair share of gambling profits because the state would monitor payouts.

''I'm trying to explain the win-win benefits,'' McDowell said.

Lots of bars limit themselves to helping one charity, she said, because selling pulltabs ties up a bartender's time. With machines, bars could use the permits of three or four nonprofit groups.

''We could actually do so much more,'' she said.

The bill has been criticized by people who say it will increase gambling in the state. McDowell doesn't think so.

Alaskans already can get on the Internet and gamble, she said. If the state legalizes video gambling, fewer people will go to Las Vegas, fewer will gamble illegally and more money will stay in the state.

''I doubt very much if there will be more gambling involved,'' she said.

McDowell said the lobbying campaign is on hold until CHARR and others working on the bill see a new version that's being written. She said the lobbying effort is a joint effort with some bingo interests, which she did not want to name.

''Several tribal communities are asking to be involved with this also,'' McDowell said.

Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said she could not assign a cost to the job of typing up 1,000 Public Opinion Messages. The agency has a labor pool on call and brings in workers at about $12 per hour when a lot of messages have to be typed.

The video gaming bill remains in the House Transportation Committee. Chairman Andrew Halcro said Thursday it is being rewritten and all references to the state ferry system will be deleted. He has scheduled the bill for action Tuesday.

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