A national commission that is studying the spread of legalized gambling in the country agreed yesterday to recommend that state legislatures restrict or prohibit political contributions to state and local candidates by companies and other entities that are in the gambling business in the state.
Meeting in San Francisco, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission adopted the measure by a 6 to 3 vote after scaling back an earlier proposal that would have also recommended restrictions or a ban on state and local campaign contributions by top gambling executives.
Gambling interests have become increasingly significant contributors in recent political campaigns, and played a substantial role in Democratic gubernatorial wins in Alabama and South Carolina last year. The Center for Responsive Politics reported last month that the industry also contributed more than $6.2 million to federal candidates and parties during the 1997-98 election cycle, double the amount it donated in the previous midterm election.
The commission's recommendation is loosely patterned after a New Jersey law that prohibits campaign contributions to state and local candidates by gambling entities and their key executives, part of an overall ban since 1930 on contributions by regulated industries such as electric utilities.
The recommendation, one of scores that the commission has adopted as it nears the end of a two-year study, would not apply to contributions to candidates for federal office. The nine-member commission does not have authority to implement any of its recommendations, many of which would require legislation by Congress or state legislatures.
The proposal adopted yesterday said the commission believes that "there are sound reasons to recommend that states adopt tight restrictions on contributions to state and local campaigns by entities -- corporate, private or tribal -- that have applied for or have been granted the privilege of operating gambling facilities."
The vote on the measure reflected long-standing divisions within the commission. The recommendation was opposed by three commission members with close ties to the industry -- William Bible, former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Robert Loescher, a Native American and member of an Alaska tribe that runs a bingo operation, and John Wilhelm, general president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.
Wilhelm objected to "singling out" a particular industry for campaign contribution restrictions. Loescher said, "I think the American way is to put up your best ideas and let them win in the court of public opinion."
But commission member Leo McCarthy, a former lieutenant governor of California, retorted that in last year's referendum battle over legalizing slot machines on Indian reservations in California, supporters and opponents of the proposal spent $88 million on advertising and "there didn't seem to be too much speech. There seemed to be an exchange of slogans."
The campaign contribution recommendation was also supported by J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. In a telephone interview from the meeting site, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Association, said Lanni's vote did not represent the gaming industry's position.
"I respectfully disagree with one of my employers, Mr. Lanni," Fahrenkopf said. "I think you start down a slippery slope if you start picking out certain industries and say that legal industries are going to be excluded from the political process."
The commission is scheduled to hold its final public meeting today in San Francisco and to issue its final report on June 18.