It turns out that slot machines and those ubiquitous Coinstar machines may have a lot more in common than the sound they make when you dump in your change. This morning, Senate Ways & Means allowed SB 6523 to die in committee, largely due to the machinations of Coinstar, Inc. and it’s uber-lobbyist, Vito Chiechi.
Why the hell would Coinstar want to kill a bill that raises the state’s legal gambling age from 18 to 21? And why the hell did state senators allow them to do it?
Well, here’s what I think I know.
In addition to coin-counting machines, Coinstar also has a $5 million a year business on amusement games, like the stupid giant claw you sometimes find near the entrances of supermarkets, enticing children with the elusive promise of a big prize. At the hearing, Coinstar testified to their concern that the bill would also raise the age on carnival and amusement games… testimony which I initially dismissed as silly; the bill clearly defined to which activities it applied, and the giant claw was not one of them.
What I hadn’t realized is that representing Coinstar was the dean of Olympia’s lobbyists, Vito Chiechi, a kind of mini-Jack Abramoff, with strong ties to gambling, alcohol, tobacco and other sin-related industries. Chiechi saw this bill as an opportunity, and he jumped at it.
It turns out that Coinstar has had a running battle with the state Gambling Commission, chafing at requests for financial records and other documents, and yearning to get out from under the Commission’s oversight. So Coinstar and Chiechi had Sen. Jim Honeyford — once described by an industry trade journal as “the best bet for expanding gambling in Washington” — insert an amendment that removed references to “amusement games” from the gambling statutes, thus removing Coinstar’s activities from Gambling Commission oversight.
So today the bill goes to Ways and Means — the last day for a bill to move out of the committee and onto Rules — and it’s “suddenly” discovered that by removing all references to amusement games, the Honeyford amendment may have inadvertently made these games illegal! Rather than fixing the language, Ways and Means chair, Sen. Margerita Prentice decided to table the bill entirely.
On its face, this is an example of Prentice and her senate colleagues sacrificing the welfare of our states’ teens to protect the interests of a large corporation. What started as an effort to raise the legal age on our multi-billion dollar gambling industry, was scuttled due to concerns from Coinstar and its $5 million worth of amusement games.
But perhaps this goes much deeper?
Prentice — a frequent beneficiary of campaign contributions from both tribal and commercial gaming interests, as well as other organizations associated with Chiechi — also sits on the Gambling Commission, and thus is very well versed in the gambling statutes. The bill, as written, only raises the gambling age at facilities where alcohol is consumed on site, and clearly does not apply to any “amusement games” that might be played by anyone under the legal drinking age. She could have amended the bill to reinsert the references to amusement games in the broader statute… but then that would have left Coinstar under Gambling Commission oversight.
Of course the bill’s death must surely please the rest of the gambling industry, none of which wanted to publicly oppose such a commonsense measure, but which certainly had nothing to gain from its passage. Delores Chiechi — Vito’s daughter — representing the commercial card rooms, quietly took no official position on the bill. Perhaps her tepid statements of support were genuine… or perhaps she knew something the rest of us didn’t know? Perhaps this bill has been dead for weeks, but nobody bothered to tell the sponsors?
I also can’t help but wonder what game Coinstar is really playing at? Standing right next to the Coinstar machine in most supermarkets is also a lottery ticket vending machine… could it be that Coinstar plans to be a big player in gambling as well? The Lottery’s own marketing plan describes 18-20 year olds as part of “a key market the lottery intends to pursue”… what role does an innovative company like Coinstar plan to play in deploying new, youth-oriented gambling technologies? How would have SB 6523 impacted its future plans?
Still, whatever the circumstances, it’s hard to blame Coinstar, the gambling industry and the Chiechis for the bill’s failure. It is their job to protect their own self-interest.
It is the Legislature’s job, on the other hand, to protect the interests and welfare of citizens of this state. This was a simple bill with a simple purpose, specifically designed to meet a need defined by the state Lottery’s own problem gambling research… a bill that had earned broad bipartisan support. By allowing the bill to die in committee, for whatever reasons, Sen. Prentice and her colleagues have failed to do their job.
The “legislative declaration” that prefaces our state’s gambling statutes starts as follows:
The public policy of the state of Washington on gambling is to keep the criminal element out of gambling and to promote the social welfare of the people by limiting the nature and scope of gambling activities and by strict regulation and control.
It is now up to the House, where companion bill HB 2872 currently sits in the Rules Committee, to live up to its responsibilities, by forcing senators to live up to theirs.