Thursday, December 13, 2001

Economy slump spurs
new gambling push

Bunda and others say it is time
for a new look at legal gaming

By Richard Borreca

Hawaii's economic downturn is spurring a new round of debate on legalizing gambling in order to raise new money.

Sen. Robert Bunda, Senate president, now is saying that Hawaii should have legalized gambling in an area set aside specifically for resorts with casinos.

"Over the years it has been politically incorrect to say you are for gambling, but when I go around my community and go to luaus, birthday parties, weddings and see my family, no one tells me they have a problem with gambling coming," said Bunda (D, Wahiawa-North Shore).

But other legislative leaders said they still oppose gambling.

"Would I vote for gambling next year? Probably not," said Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae), Senate vice president.

Bunda said organized opposition to gambling in Hawaii, including churches, has stopped the issue from being debated.

In the last legislative session, Bunda was unable to get a resolution passed calling for a study on gaming.

"I don't want to sound hypocritical, but if I don't see slot machines in the stores and I don't see lottery tickets and gambling is confined to a specific area, I support it," Bunda said.

Lobbyists pushing gambling say the state's current situation, coming on the heels of a decade-long economic slow down, is why there is more interest in gambling.

"There is nothing you can do to improve our public schools or our university fast enough that will improve the economic conditions as quickly" as gambling would, said John Radcliffe, a lobbyist representing Marian Ilitch, who owns a portion of the Detroit MotorCity Casino and is the wife of Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

Dorothy Bobilin, president of the Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, says the state's poor economy is no reason to let in gambling.

"Gambling is the easy answer for people who don't want to consider economic diversity," she said. "Also, the money that goes to the state becomes very addictive. People in other states have stopped the expansion of gambling, but they have not been able to make it go away."

Radcliffe, however, says the gambling industry is looking for Hawaii to make a decision next year.

"It is well past time for our legislators to make a decision. If they don't decide next year, it will be too late," he said. "We have had dozens of visits from business interests, and I am expecting a big grass-roots push."

Jim Boersema, representing a group affiliated with Sun International, which owns resorts and casinos, also says Hawaii's poor economy is helping to fuel new interest in gambling.

"The bottom line is, we need jobs, and several resort destination casinos aren't going to change the quality of life," he said. "A lot more people are talking about it than in the past, and a lot more people are coming on board."

"There are 48 other states that permit gaming. If you take away Las Vegas and Atlantic City, there are still 46 other states represented with gaming, and it isn't a problem," Boersema said.

Another idea under consideration is to put the question to voters.

While Hawaii does not have a law allowing citizens to vote on a new law, the state Constitution can only be amended by the voters.

Sen. David Matsuura (D, Hilo) is suggesting an amendment to the Constitution forbidding casinos and lottery. If it passes, the issue is dead, but Matsuura, who opposed gambling, said if the prohibition fails, the Legislature will have to look at gambling.

The idea of gaming also has failed to win Republican supporters. Sens. Fred Hemmings and Bob Hogue say they are opposed to gambling.

"I think the consensus is that we don't need gambling in Hawaii. It would change the character of the state, and besides, it is a vice," Hemmings said.

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