Gambling With Hawaii: The fight over legalizing gambling

By Jim Mendoza - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - To borrow a term from the world of gaming, there was a lot of "action" over gambling bills at the state legislature this year. Measures ran the gamut from legalizing shipboard gaming to opening a stand alone casino to hosting a televised high-stakes poker tournament where players collect winnings from each other, not the house.

"Why not look at this? We get the hotels filled four to six weeks. We get the shots between the rounds of Hawaii's beauty. It's free advertising," said Rep. Angus McKelvey, chairman of the House Economic Revitalization and Business Committee.

McKelvey foresees the poker bill re-surfacing next session, plus a measure to legalize bingo, with a casino bill a definite possibility.

An opponent of legalized gambling in Hawaii thinks gaming supporters see a green light.

"As long as the economy remains bad we will see possibly next year even more gambling bills," said Violet Horvath of the Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

Some think a recent radio ad calling for a casino is a table-setter for next year.

Liz Watanabe heads the group Citizens for a Better Way that paid for the spot. She insists she doesn't support gambling.

"We're saying this is an option that exists right now. This is something we need to look at seriously because it will generate money and jobs now," she said.

Supporters of a stand alone casino in Waikiki estimate it could bring in $150 million up front and $100 million every year after.

Gambling detractors counter the gamble could end up costing more than it's worth.

"There's some people that could go gamble a couple hundred dollars and go home. But those people that can't - now they're going to have to steal from somewhere. They're going to be lying to somebody. It's a double-edged sword," said Paul Lancaster, a recovering gambling addict who works with Gamblers Anonymous.

McKelvey said if Hawaii lets gambling in it will have to be controlled like a hotel casino where only guests are allowed to play. He said that could prevent locals from wagering away their paychecks.

"If that happens not only do you lose the culture and quality of life, but you also have a zero-sum game in that whatever revenue is being realized, it's going right back out in social programs," he said.

Honolulu police argue that even if gambling were legal, illegal gambling would still exist and could increase. And some worry the state would lose its unique appeal.

"Do we want to have casinos and shipboard gaming and a lottery?" Horvath said. "It will change the face of things."

Sixteen gambling bills were introduced and argued over this session. They all died. But it's a safe bet lawmakers will resurrect some of them again next year.

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