By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief
When pro-gambling lobbyists approached state Sen. Cal Kawamoto, he gave them some friendly advice: Sell the public.
"I told him, The only way youre going to pass this is youre going to have to have the constituents call, " said Kawamoto, D-19th (Wai-pahu, Pearl City).
Supporters of legalized gambling apparently agree, and a newly formed organization, the Hawaii Coalition for Economic Diversity, is publishing a series of full-page newspaper advertisements touting the potential benefits of gambling.
So far the ads dont seem to have generated many calls to the State Capitol, and many legislators remain skeptical that any gambling proposal will advance this year.
One advertisement advocated a casino operation that blends in with Hawaiis vacation attractions, promising it would not resemble the glitz of Las Vegas. Another ad featured a fresh-faced graduate in cap and gown, highlighting a proposal at the Legislature to use taxes on gambling to finance college scholarships.
Jim Boersema, spokesman for the coalition, said the last scheduled ads would run later this week. He said the coalition had a limited budget, but is considering other advertising.
"I think we want to educate the public to the fact that theres a different model out there other than what were used to in Las Vegas," Boersema said.
He said gambling typically accounts for 70 to 80 percent of revenue in Las Vegas hotels, but less than 30 percent of revenue in the type of operations he is advocating.
Boersema represents Sun International Hotels Ltd., which would like to build a 1,500-bed, $800 million hotel and casino at Ko Olina in West Oahu. Sun International needs to convince Hawaii lawmakers to authorize a casino license in the state, which outlaws gambling.
Gov. Ben Cayetano traveled last month to Sun Internationals Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas with Boersema and lobbyist Charles Toguchi, who now works as a lobbyist for Sun International. The state paid for the trip.
Cayetano said the visit was to inspect the resorts aquarium, not its casino.
Although he historically has opposed casino gambling, Cayetano said he would consider the Sun International proposal.
He told reporters yesterday: "Somebody comes in and says theyre going to give us $50 million a year, or $75 or $100 million a year. I ask you, each one of you, would you close your mind to something like that, knowing that we could use that money to educate thousands of our children?"
But he rejected another bill introduced by Kawamoto that would tap revenues from casinos in Kapolei and Waikiki to finance unlimited college scholarships.
"I would be opposed to any bill that proposes a casino in Waikiki," Cayetano said, adding that any casino should be built in a remote area that had space for additional, complementary development.
Boersema isnt willing to identify the members of the Coalition for Economic Diversity until later, but said it includes six or seven "local people." He said some people are still considering whether to join.
Sun International is not the coalitions sole source of money, Boersema said, but he declined to discuss finances. He said the group is not required to file a disclosure statement under the states lobbying law because so far the advertisements havent asked the public to contact lawmakers.
He said the coalition would register later, because it may ask the public "to take action."
The advertisements invite people interested in "gaming in Hawaii" to call a telephone number used by Q-Mark Research & Polling, which is part of Starr Seigle Communications. Boersema is president of StarrPR, a division of Starr Seigle. He said the coalition pays Q-Mark for use of the phone.
An Advertiser survey of legislators last month showed large majorities in the House and Senate opposed to casino gambling, but Boersema is convinced the survey overstated the opposition.
"First of all, that poll was done before any campaign started," he said. "Second of all, I think when you educate people that we dont want to be Las Vegas, they start saying, Well, thats a possibility.
"Legislators tend to be conservative in their approach to any controversial question. They dont like to take the controversial side in the issue. Its much easier to just say no," he said.
Some lawmakers dont think the casino proposal has a chance, with or without a media campaign. Rep. Jim Rath, R-6th (N. Kona, S. Kohala) said the ads had not prompted any calls from constituents, but said he knows his district is opposed to gambling.
"Gambling is just a tax on the poor and the stupid, and from my vantage point the poor and the stupid have it bad enough," Rath said.
House Speaker Calvin Say said he had received one call about gambling from an "acquaintance" who declined to leave his name. He said he supported gambling as a way to raise money for charities.
"At this point it has had some effect, but no one has basically torn my telephone off the hook," said Say, D-18th (Palolo, St. Louis, Kaimuki).
Say floated a gambling proposal of his own this year, but remains pessimistic about the chances of any casino proposal passing this year.
"At this point, there arent enough votes to pass a gambling bill," he said.
Advertiser reporter Robbie Dingeman contributed to this report.
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