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Rod Smith

Nevadan At Work: Dennis Neilander -- Chairman, Nevada Gaming Control Board

19 January 2004

NEVADA -- If you're sitting on the beach at Lake Tahoe this spring and see a small motorboat fly by with a water skier in tow, look again. That might just be Gaming Control Board chairman Dennis Neilander at the wheel or on the skis.

There's nothing he and his wife, Melinda, would rather do during their rare down time than go out in their 1978 Mercury Marquis, a small, inboard-outboard, Fiberglas family water-ski boat, with their two young children. For quiet time, Neilander's restoring a 1959 Chevy pickup truck, a part of the Americana for which he has a strong affinity.

Neilander and his wife, a kindergarten teacher, particularly enjoy outdoor activities, and made the career decision 14 years ago to move to Carson City for the lifestyle it offers.

He had been working for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, a nonpartisan group that provides technical assistance to all 50 states on a variety of issues.

"My emphasis in Colorado was the environment. We did policy analyses and technical support on environmental issues," Neilander said.

Through the process, he became familiar with a variety of states, especially those for which he lobbied in Washington, D.C., including Nevada.

"The economy in Denver was pretty bad," Neilander said. "We wanted to move to a smaller town, but a state capital in the West."

Facing few choices that filled the bill, he uncovered an opening with the Legislature in Carson City, and they moved as fast as he could. There, he served as primary staff for both the Assembly and Senate committees on the judiciary.

Over the next decade and a half, he moved steadily up the state government hierarchy. Today, he works out of two offices, one in Carson City and the other here.

His office in the Sawyer Building has a panoramic view of Cashman Field, but it's largely anonymous. There are no telltale signs of Neilander's enthusiasm for nature, outdoor recreation and the environment or the transition he has made to being the top regulator of the top industry in his adopted state.

Question: How did you end up focused on gaming?

Answer: One area the judiciary committees have jurisdiction over is gaming, it's a big part of what that committee did. I got pretty familiar with the gaming laws. I spent three sessions in the Legislature and a position became open at the Corporate Securities Division (of the Control Board). It regulates all publicly traded gaming companies. Historically, it's staffed by an attorney with experience in gaming and securities law. When the opening presented itself, I pursued that. The common tie was gaming as a matter of state law plus experience in securities law.

Question: What's your main responsibility as chairman?

Answer: The main responsibility is enforcement of the Gaming Control Act and regulations promulgated under the act. The other big part of my responsibility is overseeing the agency. It has 435 employees and our budget is $36 million, so a lot of my time is spent on the day-to-day functioning of the agency in a management capacity.

Question: What's your philosophy of regulating the industry?

Answer: My strategic responsibility is to make sure the industry remains free of criminal corruption and that gaming is conducted in an honest competitive fashion. The public policy of the state requires that those are the tantamount things we consider. Sometimes, having open competition and strict regulation are in conflict with one another. It's a constant balancing act to comply with requirements for strict regulation and at the same time allow the industry to grow, evolve and be freely competitive.

Question: What's your biggest challenge?

Answer: The problem of the volume of issues the board has to deal with, that and the complexity of the issues. The industry is populated by some very talented people with great entrepreneurial spirit. They're constantly trying to break new ground. Trying to allow for that and adhere to the need for strict regulation is the most challenging aspect (or my work).

Question: What do you like most?

Answer: Every day, I'm confronted with a new issue. Nothing is ever the same. it's not repetitive and it's intellectually stimulating. The Gaming Control Act is a fascinating law. Flexibility is built in in some areas. In others, it has been strictly structured. Applying new areas to the law is both fascinating and interesting. That and working with the Gaming Control Board staff and the (Gaming) Commission. I can't think of an organization in the public sector that has a group of professionals that is as diverse as the board staff.

Question: What do you like least?

Answer: The problem of volume. The problem is not unlike what most people like least. I could work 24-7 and never feel like I'd gotten everything done. But it's an enormously challenging position.

Question: What led you to a political appointment?

Answer: What I was chief of the Corporate Securities Division, Chairman (Bill) Bible was retiring and Steve DuCharme, who'd been a board member, was being appointed chairman. Gov. (Bob) Miller had approached me and asked if I'd be interested in filling out the term when there were just four months left. And then Gov. (Kenny) Guinn was elected and my term ended coinciding with his inauguration. He interviewed me on a couple of occasions and appointed me to a full term. He asked me to stay and I accepted the challenge.

Question: Would you change the gaming laws if you could?

Answer: We just underwent some fairly significant changes. Every two years we present the Legislature with an omnibus bill. We look at the act and constantly revise it. This year, we reformed the entire work permit process. We're also in the process of adopting regulations to implement the new law. Similarly, we supported changes tot he existing corporation laws evolving stock options and the ability of employees to be granted stock options in gaming companies.

Question: Would you change the agency?

Answer: Frankly, we'd have more flexibility to add staff without necessarily having to wait for two years for the Legislature to take its course. The industry changes rapidly and the agency has to stay ahead of changes, which is hard to do when you're on a two-year budget cycle.

The big thing we've done recently is doubling the staff from six professional engineers to 12 in the electronics services laboratory, where we test all the gaming devices. We've renovated the existing space to accommodate the testing of cashless wagering systems. And we're in the process of expanding our electronic testing capability to making gaming devices testing quicker and more thorough.

We have to be able to keep up with technology. Technology is what's driving competition right now, and as gaming patrons become accustomed to using technology, they expect it in their game experiences as well.

Question: Do you like living in Carson City?

Answer: We live in Minden, 15 minutes south of Carson City. But the Carson Valley is a beautiful place to live and raise a family. But I've been fortunate enough to experience most of the state of Nevada and enjoy all parts of the state.

Question: Do you commute often to Las Vegas?

Answer: Twice a month. I don't like the commuting at all, especially after the events of 9-11. There are occasions when I'll just drive because it takes about the same time with security and getting to the airport ahead of time. I try to avoid the airport when there are big conventions, which used to be easy to do but not anymore. The airport is busy at all times.