Follow the Money: Gaming re-emerges as a top political donor, as industry recovers from pandemic

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Campaign FinanceFollow the MoneyLegislature

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. 

The Nevada Resort Association — the trade group representing the gaming industry at large — contributed $180,000 to 18 lawmakers, giving the $10,000 max to a mix of 13 Democrats and five Republicans. 

The 18 recipients include candidates endorsed by the association during the election cycle, lawmakers described by the group in a press release last August as those who “understand the value of the gaming and resort industry and recognize the immense economic contributions Nevada’s leading industry brings to the state.”

When the group announced the formation of its PAC in January 2022, Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine said in a statement that the group was looking for candidates on both sides of the aisle “who will champion issues that grow our economy, encourage economic investment and job creation, contribute to our employees’ well-being, ensure taxes are fair and transparent, and protect our state’s distinctive character as a global leader in travel and tourism.”

Valentine echoed that message in an interview Friday, adding that this session’s priorities for the association include tourism and employee safety, as well as bills related to the environment and sustainability.

“We think those fall in the category of the right thing to do if you are the one of the larger corporate citizens in the state,” she said.

She also said part of the association’s political activities come from the size of the gaming industry.

“When the legislature is considering laws that impact the state's largest industry, we want them to understand how what they're doing impacts us,” Valentine said.

The association has notably sought to prevent any increases to the state’s gaming tax, which is among the lowest in the nation, despite polling indicating public support for such a change. In 2020, the Nevada Resort Association sued to block a ballot initiative that would have proposed increasing the tax rate on high-grossing casinos (that initiative was ultimately withdrawn). 

More recently, another potential flashpoint has emerged in a new attempt to create a Nevada-sponsored lottery through constitutional amendment. Proposed by Assemblyman C.H. Miller (D-North Las Vegas), the resolution would repeal a constitutional ban on lotteries and direct revenues toward youth mental health programs. 

The measure has not yet been introduced, however, and details remain scarce. Any legislatively-proposed constitutional amendment must also pass two successive legislative sessions and then be approved by a simple majority of voters at the next general election before taking effect. 

Nevada’s ban makes it just one of just five states without one — often leading to long lines at the California and Arizona state lines as jackpots balloon. For decades, regular attempts to lift that ban have been thwarted by the state’s gaming industry. 

Valentine said the resort association is opposed to a state lottery as it has been in the past, adding that any evaluations of the lottery proposal should consider the potential economic and job impacts of a state lottery that would compete with private sector businesses.

One wrinkle, however, could come from the powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which has thrown its full weight behind the lottery proposal. In an interview Friday, union Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge called the ban a “relic from the past.”

“Almost every state in the country has a lottery,” Pappageorge said. “But in addition to that, gaming has proliferated across the country, and if you add in tribal gaming, it's everywhere. So this old idea that somehow it would interfere with profits or the business side that is the lifeblood of our state and our city, it's just not true.”

Adding that youth mental health was at a “crisis point,” Pappageorge said that the issue polled well among voters, and that the union believes it will pass if put to a vote. He also said that lawmakers ignoring health and educational issues do so “at their own peril.” 

“And you know, if the Legislature doesn't do their job, then we'll make sure that we get somebody in there that does,” he said.

Caesars Entertainment rounded out the top three, contributing $117,000 across 49 legislators — though with generally fewer top-dollar contributions spread more evenly between the two parties. Only three lawmakers received the $10,000 maximum from Caesars — Yeager, Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno), while freshman Assemblyman Bert Gurr (R-Elko) received $7,500. 

Another group of eight Democrats all received $5,000, while the remaining mix of six Democrats and nine Republicans received $2,500 or less. 

Some Republican-leaning donors, such as the Michael Gaughan-owned South Point, clocked in lower on the list. Unlike other top gaming companies, more than two-thirds of the contributions from South Point ($47,500 out of $70,000) went to Republican lawmakers.

Breaking down the top recipients

More than 71 percent of gaming industry contributions went to legislative Democrats — a slightly higher amount than the percentage of Democrats in the Legislature (65 percent).

Nearly 11 percent of those contributions ($130,000) went directly to Yeager, the top Assembly Democrat who unlike Cannizzaro faced re-election last year. Historically, legislative leadership receives the bulk of campaign contributions from donors eager to have the ear of the individual with substantial legislative power over bills and resolutions. 

Following Yeager, a pair of Democratic senators in competitive races received the most from the industry. Pazina finished second, with more than $71,000 in contributions from gaming. Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) received more than $63,000. Both carried narrow victories in the 2022 election, as Pazina won by less than 5 percentage points, and Dondero Loop won by less than 2 percentage points.

Behind the top seven recipients of gaming industry contributions, all of whom were Democrats, Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas) received the most of any legislative Republican, pulling in more than $53,000 from the industry.

Though down much lower on the list with just $22,000 received from gaming, Seevers Gansert saw a higher percentage of her fundraising coming from the industry than any other lawmaker. Gaming made up nearly one-fifth of the $117,000 she raised from big-money contributions during the cycle. During the 2020 cycle, when she faced re-election, Seevers Gansert led all lawmakers by a wide margin in fundraising from the gaming industry.

Follow the Money explained

The Nevada Independent tracked and categorized more than 8,000 donations of $200 or more from Jan. 1, 2021 through the end of the election cycle on Dec. 31, 2022. 

Donors are limited to giving a maximum of $10,000 to a single candidate, but major corporations easily surpass that limit by contributing through various affiliated entities or businesses — a process sometimes referred to as bundling.

Some wealthy donors, ranging from lawyers to doctors to casino magnates, may also boost contributions to a single candidate by donating the maximum amount under their name and under their spouse’s name. 

Each donation was categorized by the industry or field of the organization or individual who contributed, and the entire set of donations was analyzed for patterns and trends. Our analysis has also sought to track bundled contributions where possible, linking contributions from LLCs or subsidiary companies to their largest parent company or individual donor. Total contributions from MGM Resorts International include not only money donated directly from MGM, but also from the properties it manages, for instance.  

Data collected does not include donations made to losing candidates, nor does it break down  small donations under the $200 threshold or fundraising activity for the many PACs or political groups that spend in support of candidates. 

It also excludes Assemblywoman Sabra Newby (D-Las Vegas), who was appointed after the election and did not raise funds. 

Still, the $200 threshold captures the vast majority of all the money contributed to elected lawmakers over the last two years. All legislative contributions under $200 in the 2022 cycle — more than 7,400 individual transactions — totaled just $221,000.

Roy Visuett contributed data analysis to this report. This story is a part of The Nevada Independent’s weekly Follow the Money series, which examines the amount of money contributed by major industries to individual state lawmakers. For a list of all our Follow the Money stories, click here.


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