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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Gambling still hot issue

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

A key panel of lawmakers shot down two proposals to legalize gambling in Hawai'i just days ago, but partisans on both sides of the issue insist it is not dead yet.

Investors who hope to build casinos in Waikiki and Leeward O'ahu produced 25,000 petition signatures yesterday to bolster their argument that a "silent majority" of residents support the plan.

And business leaders who oppose gambling scheduled a news conference today to announce that they are gearing up for a long fight.

Holomua Hawai'i, a group that includes investors in a Detroit casino called MotorCity, said the petition signatures had been collected in three weeks last April and represent growing grassroots support for gambling.

Carol Tsai, a real estate agent and former president of the Hawaii Chinese Tourism Association, said visitors from China often ask why gambling is not allowed here. Legalizing it could tap a huge new tourism market, she said.

Tsai, a member of Holomua Hawai'i and investor in the casino plan, said that rather than enjoying the beach alone, Chinese tourists "really like excitement and nightlife."

"Chinese like gambling," she said. "Everybody knows that."

Gambling is already prevalent in Chinatown, as evidenced by frequent media reports about police raids of illegal casinos there, but the state collects no tax revenue from it, she said.

Steve Kawagishi, another investor and the chief executive officer of the Japan Hawaii Travel Association, said casinos would also help draw more tourists from Japan.

"We get a lot of golfers and surfers from Japan, and at night this would give more options for gamblers if they prefer to do this," he said.

The major investors in the plan are Marian Illitch and Mike Malik, partners in the Detroit casino. Illitch's family owns the Detroit Tigers baseball team and Detroit Red Wings hockey team, as well as the Little Caesars pizza chain and other businesses. Malik is a developer and longtime consultant for Michigan casinos owned by Indian tribes.

In a video produced by Holomua Hawai'i, economists and others argue that gambling would create jobs, provide more government revenue, and revive the state's ailing tourism-dependent economy.

Holomua Hawai'i, named after the Hawaiian word for progress, is packaged as a grassroots effort, but it is in fact the creation of a Michigan public relations and political consulting firm hired by Illitch and Malik to promote the casino plan. The firm, Marketing Resource Group, spent nearly $11,000 lobbying lawmakers between January and April last year, records show.

But the company now risks a fine because it failed to file a lobbying expenditure report for the rest of the year, which was due at the state Ethics Commission on Thursday. Donna Halinski, a consultant with the firm, conceded that it had paid people to gather the petition signatures but could not say how much that had cost, or how much had been spent on lobbying.

This morning, several business executives and leaders of business groups are scheduled to gather at the Capitol and announce a growing alliance to fight gambling proposals. They include longtime gambling opponents such as Jim Tollefson, acting president of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i, and Rodney Shinkawa, executive director of the Hawai'i Bankers Association.

Kelly Rosati, an organizer of the event, said it is meant to counteract the continued push by gambling advocates and to underscore efforts to draw more business leaders into the fight.

"They're pushing colleagues to get off the fence and join this effort," said Rosati, executive director of Hawai'i Family Forum, a conservative Christian group opposed to gambling.

On Saturday, the state House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs voted to kill two gambling bills. One supported the plan for two casinos that Holomua Hawai'i is advocating, and the other would have allowed a rival group backed by Sun International Hotels to build a single casino as part of an elaborate resort.

Gov. Ben Cayetano, who has said he would support one casino and is open to shipboard gambling, said yesterday that he had doubted the proposals would go far in the Legislature any time soon.

"I think it was probably best that they put it to rest this year," he said. "I never expected them to do anything serious about it, not in an election year. Plus, I think that the economy is showing signs of coming back, and the economy always is a big factor when people consider going to revenue sources that we never had before."

Staff writer Kevin Dayton contributed to this report. Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.