The gambling industry is all about money. Lots of it. And New Jersey is setting itself up as the state most determined to keep casinos' cash out of political coffers.
As the industry has raised the stakes, with gross revenues nationwide soaring from $10 to $48 billion in the past 20 years, New Jersey has stepped up the pressure accordingly. A state law that bans contributions to state or local political candidates or parties from any casino employee or agent acting on their behalf is among the toughest. And the state is considering making the law even tougher.
New Jersey is at the forefront of a growing movement in the United States. In a time when more states are dipping a toe into the casinos' cash currents, more attention is being paid to the issues of casinos and politics, and many states are entering the same legal and ideological struggle that New Jersey has waged for two decades.
"Clearly, the casino industry's ability to pour huge amounts of money into the political process poses harm to citizen confidence in the integrity of government," said Dennis Jaffe, executive director of New Jersey Common Cause.
That concern led to a recent hearing held by the Casino Control Commission to consider further tightening laws. The proposed law would expand the scope of the ban to include others, including lobbyists, who have a tangential connection to the casino industry. And, as Mr. Jaffe notes, "A huge amount of casino money is spent on lobbying."
Some $2.5 million was spent on such lobbying in New Jersey between 1992 and 1995. And while the contributions are legal, experts say many New Jerseyans put casinos in a separate category from other businesses, and are wary of mixing gambling and politics.
"It's not quite a vice, but it kind of borders on that," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "It's something that society, or at least people of New Jersey, have agreed to tolerate. But there's also a feeling that, at least morally, it's not the most praiseworthy activity and should be cordoned off."
Indeed, when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman recently agreed to spend $220 million building a tunnel in Atlantic City to help open up land for casino mogul Steve Wynn to develop, citizens' groups complained. They denounced using public money to benefit a casino owner.
Still, while folks in New Jersey may worry about casinos' influence on politics, the American public's perception of casinos in general has improved during the past few years, many say.
"The longer gaming is around, the more it's accepted - especially as it becomes a major economic force," says William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada in Reno. "Then the states start to look upon gambling much more favorably as a normal industry."
In fact, since 1978, the number of states with casinos has swelled from two - Nevada and New Jersey - to 27. And all of this is happening at a time when casinos are trying to shed their tarnished image as a mob-backed industry and gain political and social respectability. Part of that process entails doing what the liquor and tobacco industries do: spending money on politicians.
Since 1992, the casino industry has begun to pour more money into the political process, says Mr. Eadington.
A recent investigation by Mother Jones magazine found that casinos dumped $100 million into state, federal, and local political campaigns in the past five years. The article found that, even in states with tough laws, casino money finds its way into politics, often via payments to lobbying groups.
So the struggle continues. And some say, even if the end result is not perfect, the fight is worth continuing.
Professor Baker maintains that the "fire wall" between the casinos and the political process helps keep the process "germ free." And what's more, he points to a deeper, perhaps more important reason, for the fight. "The casinos are in a position to encourage habits that we, as a society, don't necessarily approve of," he says. "It seems to me it comes down to a moral issue rather than an issue of good or bad public policy."