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Battling the Blacklist

Enhancing our voice on Capitol Hill to protect our industry

After a turbulent August recess-during which legislators were confronted by constituents anxious about the relentless economic recession and pending government reform-Congress has returned to work with a renewed sense of urgency. Its forthcoming deliberations promise to have a profound impact on the commercial casino industry and its employees.

Currently, a plethora of compelling issues compete for the attention of policymakers. Top-tier concerns such as health care and energy reform continue to dominate national headlines. Those discussions threaten to supersede other pieces of legislation crucial to our industry, such as the Travel Promotion Act. The TPA would designate a substantial sum of federal money to promote domestic tourism, breathing new life into destination cities across the country, including gaming communities, which welcomed fewer international visitors in 2008 than in 2000.

The American Gaming Association is hard at work positioning the commercial casino industry at the forefront of these issues. Thanks to the support of our members, we are prepared to aggressively promote and protect the interests of our industry, and to engage in debates on Capitol Hill with a resonant, unified voice.

To do so, however, we must first address a perception problem that persists among members of Congress. Unfortunately, despite the AGA’s best efforts, some of our country’s most influential legislators fail to understand that the commercial casino industry represents a critical segment of the American economy.

For example, the media has widely reported that many federal agencies are excluding destinations perceived to be too leisure-oriented from consideration for government meetings and conventions. This “travel blacklist” includes Las Vegas and Orlando, the country’s flagship gaming market and its top convention location. Recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the General Services Administration relocated conferences from Las Vegas.

As I mentioned in a letter to President Obama about this issue, it seems counterintuitive for government agencies to avoid destinations that cater to tourist travel, since the drop in consumer spending has resulted in significant value in these locations. Las Vegas’ world-class, state-of-the-art hotels-which provide conference attendees with access to convenient and abundant meeting space-have slashed rates to levels not seen in more than a decade.

Perhaps some policymakers do not realize that the ripple effect of the travel blacklist is widespread. When revenue from business meetings and events deteriorates, bellmen, custodians, casino employees and other hourly wage employees lose their jobs. In short measure, restaurants, florists, gift shops and other companies that rely on corporate gatherings are forced to shut their doors.

To ensure that our industry receives the consideration it deserves from Congress, the AGA must re-educate legislators about the many benefits casinos bring to communities, including thousands of good-quality jobs, opportunities for local vendors and much-needed tax revenue.

To that end, the AGA has planned the commercial casino industry’s first coordinated Washington, D.C. outreach event later this month. For the very first time, industry representatives from across the country will convene on Capitol Hill to meet with our nation’s top decision-makers.

The fly-in event represents an unprecedented opportunity for the commercial casino industry. In the face of the worst economic recession this country has seen in decades, top gaming executives-who frequently compete directly with one another for business-will join forces. For two days, they will meet with congressional leaders from both parties, as well as representatives from the Obama administration, to share information about the economic value of the commercial casino industry and to promote policy decisions that support the industry and the communities it serves.

Going forward, the AGA plans to host a similar fly-in event every year. Doing so is crucial to our ongoing efforts to develop mutually beneficial relationships with key members of Congress. Our industry must have a powerful and consistent presence on Capitol Hill.

In an effort to capitalize on the momentum achieved during this month’s fly-in event, the AGA also will launch our new grass-roots outreach website.

This online resource-located at mobilize commercial casino industry employees, suppliers and other stakeholders to conduct outreach to policymakers on issues of industry-wide concern. The website will provide industry stakeholders with useful tools-such as sample letters and talking points -and encourage them to call, write or e-mail their respective members of Congress when important issues arise. Developing a robust grass-roots network will further strengthen our industry’s voice in Washington.

Another crucial component of any successful effort to educate and engage members of Congress is a strong political action committee. Changes to campaign financing laws have made PAC contributions one of the few remaining ways to build positive relationships with legislators and others who develop public policy. A robust PAC will allow the industry to support political candidates who have demonstrated a willingness to fight for the commercial casino industry.

We recently expanded the AGA membership base to include individuals, as well as organizations and companies, involved in the commercial casino industry. We are encouraging all of our members to contribute to the PAC, which will serve as their collective voice on Capitol Hill on the issues that matter most. A well-funded PAC will broaden the AGA’s reach in Washington and maintain an edge in today’s aggressive political environment.

As Congress prepares to debate some of the most consequential issues of the decade, the AGA must have a seat at the table. When making key decisions, legislators must take into account the commercial casino industry and its vital contributions. Our industry currently is grappling with a daunting set of challenges. Enhancing our voice on Capitol Hill is essential to our continued survival and-when the economic crisis subsides-our future success.

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