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Gaming re-emerges as a top Nevada political donor, as industry recovers from pandemic

As Nevada’s gaming industry has thrived in the post-pandemic era, collectively raking in more than $1 billion in revenue month after month since early 2021, the 2022 election cycle marked a return to political prominence for the state’s largest money maker.
After the 2020 cycle saw cumulative contributions from the gaming industry to Nevada lawmakers nosedive to $769,000 amid plummeting gaming revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry bounced back in 2022, dishing out more than $1.2 million to 55 legislators. 
Still, even in an election year that shattered state campaign finance records, those contributions fell far short of the industry’s ample giving in pre-pandemic years, including $1.6 million in 2018 and $1.9 million in 2016.
No company better exemplified the year-to-year shifts in industry giving than MGM Resorts. In pre-pandemic years, the company routinely led the industry in contributions, giving out upwards of $300,000, primarily to Democrats. During the 2020 cycle, the company gave just $42,000. Across the 2022 cycle, the company and its properties contributed more than $277,000.
The past election cycle also saw the emergence of a political action committee launched by the Nevada Resort Association, the primary trade association for the gaming industry, which represents nearly 80 casino resorts across the state. The association and its PAC contributed $180,000 to 18 winning candidates, second most behind MGM — a total that doesn’t include the casino trade group’s failed $1.5 million effort to oust several incumbent lawmakers in the 2022 primary election.

With MGM and the Nevada Resort Association leading the way, contributions from the gaming industry were concentrated at the top —  nearly three-fourths of all industry contributions came from just seven companies or groups, each of which donated at least $70,000.

Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive officer of marketing and public affairs firm R&R Partners and a lobbyist for the Nevada Resort Association, described the political contributions of the industry as a “two-way obligation.”

“One is for the industry to support candidates they believe will better serve the state,” he said in an interview Friday. “And two — elected officials who understand both the importance of the industry … and the obligation to understand and work with the industry on issues that are of common threat to both. If the industry is doing well, the state does well, whether its revenue, the funding of education, all of the programs that are important.”

Vassiliadis also said a top concern for the industry this session is “the safety and comfort of our employees and visitors in the resort corridor and in resort areas.” That includes issues with congestion on sidewalks and bridges around the resorts and concern about human trafficking in those areas. But the gaming industry will also be watching for policy changes in a variety of other areas from health care to water conservation to labor.

“It is the biggest industry and by that, the largest taxpayer, largest revenue generator, largest provider of health insurance,” Vassiliadis said. “Just about any public policy issue will have a disproportionate effect on an industry that is that much of this state's economic infrastructure.”

This story is part of The Nevada Independent’s “Follow the Money” series tracking money in politics. This installment, and others published throughout the legislative session, will analyze the fundraising activity of state lawmakers, with deep dives into how different industries and top contributors doled out money. Find other installments here.

The data offers a look at how the state’s most powerful companies and political organizations contribute to policymakers who set laws affecting businesses and residents alike. It also provides context for the 120-day legislative session, as lawmakers face pressure from the same groups and individuals who donated to their campaigns.

Breaking down the top contributors

MGM and its properties returned to the top of the donor charts last year after a COVID-induced fundraising retreat in 2020, doling out $277,500 to 40 legislators. A vast majority of that money — just over 80 percent — went to legislative Democrats, including 10 of MGM’s top 12 recipients.

Leading all lawmakers was Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), who received $30,000 in combined contributions from MGM-affiliated sources. He was followed closely by his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), and Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), the Assembly majority floor leader. Both received $20,000. 

Assemblywoman Shea Backus (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Julie Pazina (D-Las Vegas) — both locked in competitive races last year in districts ringing parts of suburban Las Vegas — each received $15,000, while another 7 lawmakers received $10,000. 

Among those $10,000 recipients, only two were Republicans: Sen. Robin Titus (R-Wellington) and Assemblyman Gregory Hafen (R-Pahrump).  

MGM has traditionally backed Democrats more heavily than Republicans — often an apparent counterweight to Las Vegas Sands, which perennially sent tens of thousands in contributions to GOP lawmakers under the stewardship of Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson. 

Following Adelson’s death and the broader exit of the Sands from the Las Vegas Strip, that dynamic has shifted almost entirely to MGM, which comprised more than 22 percent of all gaming fundraising last year, compared to just 3.8 percent (or $46,500) for the Sands — down from $160,000 in contributions in the pandemic-affected 2020 cycle. 

Source: The Nevada Independent 

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