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Betting Ban Opponents Step Up Lobbying

6 March 2001

by Benjamin Grove

WASHINGTON, D.C. – March 6, 2001 --Nevada lawmakers, lobbyists and gaming executives are using a high-pressure defense this week to sideline a bill that would ban betting on college sports in Nevada casinos.

More than 50 gambling industry officials, including 14 from eight Nevada casino companies, are expected in Washington for an annual United Way event Wednesday. About 20 members of Congress are expected when the United Way recognizes big donors at a Capitol Hill awards ceremony.

But high-powered officials also will be busy lobbying lawmakers to oppose a sports betting ban bill.

"This is an extremely important week," Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said today.

The timing of increased Nevada lobbying is important because the sponsors of the betting ban bill are expected to introduce the legislation in a hail of publicity during March Madness, the national college basketball tournament that begins a week from Thursday. An exact date has not yet been chosen, said a spokesman for Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading advocate of the bill.

"We are looking forward to introducing it when it would receive maximum coverage," Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said today.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another leading bill advocate, also is eager to introduce the bill, a spokeswoman said. Bill supporters say the legislation is necessary to curb gambling on college campuses, along with the activity of "campus bookies" and game fixers.

Nevada lawmakers and gaming executives already have met with House and Senate members to persuade them to co-sponsor a different bill they say is a better alternative to banning bets in Nevada.

The measure calls for a two-year study of gambling on college campuses and a Justice Department crackdown on bookies and other violators of current gambling law. The bill also would put an onus on universities to institute anti-gambling programs.

"They (the NCAA) are screaming bloody murder that they would be expected to do anything," American Gaming Association lobbyist John Shelk said.

The NCAA is doing lobbying of its own. Sports gambling is "the addiction of the 90s" a top NCAA official told a Nevada legislative panel last week. The NCAA believes that "legal collegiate sports wagering fuels a much larger illegal collegiate sports wagering trade," NCAA director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities Bill Saum told the panel in Carson City.

The NCAA has won the support of college presidents and high-profile coaches, as well as many in Congress.

To counter that, the AGA has met this year with congressional leaders and is now meeting with rank-and-file members to build support for the "eminently sensible" alternative bill, Shelk said. Nevada lawmakers have been doing the same.

Berkley and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., have collected 20 co-sponsors for their bill. This week they will send a "Dear Colleague" letter to House members, imploring, "now is the time for all of us to come together to launch a nationwide campaign against illegal sports gambling." Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., are sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate.

Berkley persuaded Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on House Judiciary, to support the bill after giving him a tour of a Las Vegas sports book. Berkley has meetings today with three House alliances including the Hispanic Caucus and House "Blue Dogs," a cadre of conservative Democrats. She is hosting a reception at her Capitol Hill townhouse tonight for about 20 members of the House freshman and sophomore classes.

"You never take your friends and allies for granted," Berkley said.

Gibbons and AGA president Frank Fahrenkopf plan to meet next week with Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who is now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, where hearing on the bill would be heard. They want Sensenbrenner to consider alternative bill alongside the betting ban bill.

"He deserves the opportunity to hear both sides of the issue," said Mike Dayton, Gibbons' chief of staff.

A Nevada Resort Association lobbyist said it was too early to say if momentum is shifting away from the betting ban bill toward the alternative offered by Nevada lawmakers.

"We've slowed their charge down, if nothing else," Wayne Mehl said.

Berkley warned, "The momentum is definitely shifting toward us -- on the other hand, the opposition hasn't mounted its attack yet. This is far from over."

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