Las Vegas casinos spending heavily to defend tax increase; here’s why

A view of the Las Vegas Strip as seen from Rivea at Delano Las Vegas on December 8, 2015.

Nevada’s major casinos were generally strong supporters of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $1.1 billion tax package last year, and they have already spent heavily to keep the taxes intact, according to a recently filed campaign finance report.

Casinos provided the vast majority of the $242,310 in contributions that the Coalition for Nevada’s Future reported in a Friday filing with the Secretary of State’s Office. The coalition has fought a proposed ballot measure that would repeal the commerce tax, which applies to businesses with annual state revenues of more than $4 million and was part of the broader tax package aimed at supporting public education.

Most of the coalition’s casino funds came from five Las Vegas gaming giants, according to the filing, which only covers 2015 contributions of more than $1,000. Wynn Resorts Ltd., MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corp. each contributed $38,000, while Station Casinos LLC and Boyd Gaming Corp. gave $28,500 apiece, the filing shows.

But big gaming interests weren’t the only ones who gave: The South Point hotel-casino and Affinity Gaming LLC each contributed $4,750, and a handful of Reno casinos gave smaller amounts, according to the filing.

Casinos backed the big tax plan in large part because they were not the only ones being tapped for it — they were on board as long as others were chipping in as well. So while it may be surprising in one sense to see so many big businesses come to the defense of a major tax increase, UNLV political scientist David Damore said it makes sense when considering what could happen to them if the tax package is dealt a major blow at the ballot box.

“If that gets gutted, the easiest fix would be to try to go for gaming again (for additional tax revenue),” Damore said. “For gaming, (the commerce tax) was a win because, yeah, their taxes went up — but everyone else’s taxes went up, too.”

The commerce tax is expressly supported by the Nevada Resort Association, whose members include the state’s most dominant casinos. Virginia Valentine, the association’s president, said in an email that her group has historically favored “broad-based tax solutions to fund state government,” and called the commerce tax “one of the broadest.”

“The precipitous decline in state revenues during the great recession was due in large part to the reliance on a very narrow tax base,” Valentine said in the email. “The commerce tax should reduce volatility while providing long-term growth, especially as the Nevada economy becomes more diverse.”

While it may have received the broadest support, the tax coalition was far from the only big recipient of funds from the top casino operators last year.

Wynn Resorts and Caesars also gave substantial contributions to Nevadans for Background Checks, a group pushing a ballot measure to expand criminal background checks for gun sales. Wynn Resorts gave $50,000 — the company’s largest single contribution last year — and Caesars gave $25,000, according to the group’s contributions and expenses report filed Friday.

The large amount given by Wynn Resorts might seem unexpected given how much the company and its Wynn Las Vegas resort focused their other contributions last year on Republicans, who are generally known for their opposition to gun control measures.

Among the recipients of Wynn or Wynn Las Vegas contributions were Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, the PAC affiliated with Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt and the conservative Growth & Opportunity PAC, records show. Moreover, Steve Wynn, the company’s chief executive, and his wife, Andrea, each gave $5,000 to Laxalt and $10,000 the Nevada Republican Party Central Committee.

But Steve Wynn’s ex-wife, Elaine, was named in early 2015 as the chairwoman of the state advisory board for Nevadans for Background Checks.

She gave $5,000 to the group in October, according to the contributions report.

Elaine Wynn lost her seat on the Wynn Resorts board last year but remains a major shareholder.

When asked what motivated the contribution to Nevadans for Background Checks, Wynn Resorts spokesman Michael Weaver said in an email that the company gave because it believes that “more intelligent gun laws will be beneficial to the safety of our employees and their families.”

Damore said the contributions from Wynn and Caesars to the background check group stood out because of the hot-button nature of the gun control measure.

“It’s going to be a divisive issue here, as it is nationally,” he said. “Usually, you find businesses don’t want to get too involved in social issues because they’ll alienate somebody.”

Still, businesses that feel passionately enough about a certain issue may feel compelled to donate, Damore said.

Casinos also gave a lot to Laxalt and Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, both of whom could be gubernatorial candidates in the 2018 election. Sisolak is up for re-election this year as well.

For example, Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave $25,000 to the Laxalt-affiliated Morning in Nevada PAC, making them the largest single donors to that group, according to the PAC’s annual filing. Records show that Laxalt and Morning in Nevada also received a total of $40,000 from either Station Casinos, its co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta or Fertitta’s other company Zuffa LLC, parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

As for Sisolak, his list of contributors from last year is filled with big names from the state gaming industry. Las Vegas Sands and Caesars each gave him $10,000, MGM Resorts gave $5,000, Boyd Gaming and its properties gave $20,000, Station and Zuffa contributed $35,000 — and the list goes on.

Other big recipients of contributions from casinos include Hutchison — another possible candidate for governor — as well as Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and an array of other local and state politicians. Station and Boyd, in particular, contributed to many local and state politicians from both sides of the aisle.

“That’s usually what you find for businesses,” Damore said. “They’re going to play both sides based on what they expect to happen.”