Casino owners can again fund politicians under Michigan law

Tuesday 10th December 2019

LANSING -- Casino owners and their suppliers will again be able to make political donations under a bill that is soon expected to land on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk.

Michigan voters banned political donations by casino interests when they passed Proposal E to legalize casinos in 1996.

As a result, Michigan lawmakers required a two-thirds vote in each chamber to lift the ban. They got that Tuesday, with a 34-4 vote in the Senate. The House passed the same measure last Wednesday, by a vote of 89-16. The bill must now to return to the House to concur with changes made by the Senate.

If signed by Whitmer, as expected, the change could potentially significantly increase political giving in Michigan by casino owners and their licensed suppliers.

The passage of House Bill 4307 came ahead of action expected in the Legislature Wednesday to legalize Internet gaming and sports betting.

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Billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has given millions to officeholders and political funds at the federal level but has not showed up on the state database of Michigan political givers since he bought Greektown Casino in 2013, has been selling his casino interests in Detroit and elsewhere. But the legislation could affect wealthy Michigan residents such as Marian Ilitch, who owns a stake in Motor City Casino.

Still, the effect of the legislation could not be as great as it appears at first blush, said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Casino corporations and their owners have been able to give to nonprofit organizations such as the ones created under 501c4 of the Income Tax Act, which can then funnel money to political funds, Schuster said.

"I would be skeptical that this (ban) has significantly curtailed their influence," he said.

Casino principals will now be able to give more directly and transparently to candidates if they wish, he said.

State Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, voted against the bill at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

"I won't be able to vote for this" and overturn the will of voters expressed at the polls, Johnson said.

But Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said it's not just wealthy casino owners who have been banned from giving under the current law, but small business owners such as those who serve food to casino patrons paid for by "comps" issued by the casinos.

"I think it's blatantly unconstitutional (and) I'm not sure how it's stood up in Michigan as long as it has," Hertel said.

"I think it's silly to tell a guy who is selling falafel sandwiches down the street from the casino that he can't give political donations."

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