Is It Time to Legalize Gambling in Hawaii? Filipino Community Have Mixed Feelings


by Chona Montesines-Sonido

For as long as Hawaii residents have been visiting Las Vegas, there’s been a local appetite to legalize gambling in Hawaii.

In the 1980s-1990s – before Las Vegas became home to tens of thousands of Hawaii transplants – the hype swirling around gaming in Hawaii were ambitious and supersized that would have hotels in Waikiki operate as casinos. Look out Atlantic City and Las Vegas, the mature Hawaii tourism mecca is coming after you. That’s what people thought could happen.

Since then, smaller-scale forms of commercial gambling were considered for Hawaii: a Native Hawaiian casino outside of Waikiki to be operated similar to those run on Native American lands or horse racing, shipboard gambling or hosting a televised high-stakes poker tournament.

A state lottery and bingo looked to be the most palatable gambling options for Hawaii. But that and all other gaming proposals, came before a reluctant State Legislature thinking rolling the dice on legalized gambling is too risky.

When lobbying for gambling in Hawaii was at its peak decades ago, it was common to see five, 10, 15 bills related to gambling each year at the State Legislature. In recent years, it’s been far fewer bills.

Fear of addiction as reason for repeated failure
Melody (last name withheld), Waipahu, and her husband Karl go to Las Vegas twice or three times a year to get “their fix,” she says of their gambling “passion.”

Melody says they are not addicted to gambling but think, “gambling in Hawaii hasn’t been approved all these years because people fear their loved ones or they themselves could get addicted. It helps my husband and I that we must travel to Las Vegas to gamble. If gambling were easily accessible like 20 minutes to an hour away from our home, it’s likely our gambling fun could spiral out of control.

She says, “Hawaii folks go to Vegas so often. We all hear the stories of addiction. We see the construction workers still in their work clothes at casinos. Or see the young pregnant woman playing slots for hours. We see on rare occasions, people crying in the hallway while making their way back to their hotel room. Hawaii folks, many of us, know people who have moved to Vegas and end up losing big money. Couples will get divorced and come back to Hawaii broke.

“The fear of addiction, not the potential for increased violence, is the real reason attempts to legal gambling keeps failing in Hawaii,” Melody said.

The upside to having gambling legal in Hawaii
– Supporters of gaming cite opportunities for new businesses in Hawaii and a jolt to the local economy.
– Lawmakers look at the potential to bolster state revenues with legal gambling.
– New gambling businesses could be taxed at a very high rate which monies can support state programs and services from education to building affordable housing projects, lawmakers say.

The additional stream of income for the state would also come without raising taxes on local residents and businesses.

Allan Alvarez, Kapolei, supports legal gambling in Hawaii. “I think the additional state revenues will justify gaming in Hawaii. At the same time, though, we must have oversight to make sure funds that are to go to the State, actually go to programs for the state. Too many times [where gambling is legal], corruption sets in and funds are diverted or mishandled. If we do set up a casino in Hawaii, there must come along with it, good fiscal management,” Alvarez said.

Instead of the limited proposal in the latest gambling bill, Alvarez supports a full-scale casino in Hawaii. Alvarez said the bill is a start but could fall flat because of the limited scope of gambling. His choice of gambling is table games.

Alvarez says he is a rare gambler who does it only while on vacation if the opportunity arises. He’s gambled on several occasions in the Philippines and in Las Vegas.

“I think following the path of Indian reservations hosting, owning and operating casinos would be very good for Hawaii and its residents. Most gaming operations set aside money to fund community activities and having a casino in Hawaii will help raise much-needed additional revenues for the community. 

Mark Ruiz, Pearl City, 55, said he doesn’t have any strong opinions on gambling as he used to. Over the years he said he’s been to Las Vegas about to 20-25 times. At this point I understand it’s rare for people to win. The last few times I’ve been there I would spend most of my time going to shows. Now in my later life, I’ve exhausted all that passion for casinos or gaming. I lost a lot of money over the years. Vegas was fun; but I do have regrets.”

Controversy continues, how will new gaming tech be embraced?
Hawaii remains the only state that bans all forms of commercial gambling. All 49 states have some form of legal gambling from full liberal codes to a select, few options. The fight to legalize gaming in Hawaii remains contentious and passionate on both sides. With new technology and new modes of gambling, State Legislatures across the nation are reassessing their gaming options. Could these new gaming options finally entice Hawaii to join the rest of the nation in legalizing gambling?

Newest gaming proposal
Representative John Mizuno introduced a Sports Gaming Bill that aims to make sports book and card room legal. As of press time, the bill passed first reading. Legal sports betting is becoming increasingly popular since becoming federally legal in 2018. 31 states and the District of Columbia have some form of sports betting.

The card game would just be for one game, poker, Texas Hold’em. While slots are popular among Hawaii residents, there will be none of them, Mizuno told Maui news.

Governor Josh Green said he’s willing to consider what lawmakers come up with.

“We need revenue for our state but the revenues if you are not careful do come from those who are tending to have economic problems or challenges,” Green said. “So, I’d like to be careful.”

Mizuno said in a press release, “With Hawaiʻi residents dropping a billion dollars to Las Vegas, Nevada every year, I think a sports and card gaming bill warrants at least a discussion. If crime is associated with gambling, why is gaming legal in 48 states and why are so many Hawaiʻi residents going to Las Vegas, with many taking multiple trips? The people I know who enjoy trips to Las Vegas are mostly kūpuna, not criminals. I feel it is important to discuss options to keep local money in the local economy.”

A popular destination for Hawaii tourists, downtown Las Vegas hotels owned by Boyd Gaming alone reported it earns about it earns about $600,000,000 from Hawaiʻi visitors each year, Mizuno quoted a Honolulu Civil Beat article.

Plans for the Gaming Room
House Committee on Economic Development Chair Daniel Holt said the bill addresses some of the concerns of the past regarding gambling. There would be no virtual participation linked to the Oahu gaming facility. All gambling will take placed at the authorized site, which would appear closer to gaming rooms or gaming parlors in a neighborhood setting versus a large full-scale gaming establishment of the casino-type.

Those parlors would still be attractive to those used to going to Las Vegas.

Customers would only be allowed to enter the sports book and card room after registering with the premises and paying a daily entry fee.

The gaming rooms would be heavily taxed (on sports betting could be as high as 55%). Some of that money would go to law enforcement, for gambling addiction programs, affordable housing, to Hawaiian Homelands and education for kids, Mizuno said.

Some states use gambling taxes to support social programs and education. In New Mexico, the state grants its residents paid tuition at state public universities. That state collects $63.5 million from its state lottery.

Both Mizuno and Holt, who represent parts of Kalihi hopes the bill will encourage local residents who frequent Las Vegas to stay home and spend their money in Hawaii to help boost the local economy.

Gambling already exists in Hawaii, but illegally
Both Mizuno and Holt are aware of the illegal gambling in their districts and others. Holt said, “Being practical and knowing that these things are taking place on our streets every day. To make like we are introducing something new is false. We are taking an industry that is being unregulated and putting it into regulation and benefiting our communities at the same time.”

The proposed legal gaming rooms would offer a safe alternative to illegal gaming dens where prostitution and other crimes occur.

Mizuno said thousands of people from Hawaii also gamble on illegal websites that are offshore. There is also illegal cock fighting.

Some experts believe the opposite could happen or nothing at all when it comes to legal gambling reducing illegal gambling.

Revenues may not be substantial as estimated, Vegas will still draw Hawaii locals, Keep Hawaii as is
Some who oppose gambling in Hawaii don’t believe the central argument that because Las Vegas draws many Hawaii tourists, there is a built-in customer base just waiting to gamble as soon as the state legalizes it.

Melody said she and her husband would still go to Las Vegas if Hawaii suddenly had places to gamble legally. “Even if Hawaii offers gambling, many Hawaii folks will continue to go to Las Vegas. The sports betting and card room proposal this year has nothing on Vegas. People like to gamble because they are on vacation. People on staycation wouldn’t immediately think they want to gamble, especially if it’s in a ‘room’ or regular building, compared with the grand casinos and exciting entertainment in Vegas. 

“I think the amount of captured taxes from legal gambling establishments in Hawaii will not be considerable enough to outweigh the harm gambling does. The state could bring in more money, but it will most likely pay for it in increased social needs.  Some social experts say legalizing gambling in Hawaii could increase drugs, crime, addiction, and poverty. For this reason, gambling is often called a zero-sum game.

Roland Casamina, CEO and President, House of Finance Inc, goes to Las Vegas at a minimum once a year to entertain clients and companies that he does business with or to reward employees for a good year. While in Vegas, Casamina doesn’t gamble. Instead, he enjoys the shows.  

“I don’t support small gaming operations.  There will still be a want and need to go to Vegas.  Somehow the feel about Vegas with the Mega gambling casinos still will draw the typical Hawaii resident. Secondly, making Hawaii like a gambling Mecca like Vegas will also erode the infrastructure, and the reputation of Hawaii being Paradise.”

Rose Cruz Churma, Kaneohe, said people are drawn to Las Vegas not only because of gambling. “My guess is that even if casinos are available here, there still would be interest in visiting Las Vegas.”

Churma never gambles besides betting on a mahjong game and election. She opposes full-scale casino gambling and the current proposal at the State Legislature. “Let’s keep, Hawaii, Hawaii. We don’t want to be a mini-Vegas. If a gaming room opened, Churma wouldn’t go to even visit.

Churma has been to Vegas once and that was enough, she says. “The place is fake—fake pyramids, fake Venice…most attractions are replicas of popular destinations.  Where’s the originality there?”

Disruption to family
Myra (requested anonymity, not her real name), Waipahu, is against legalizing gambling in Hawaii. Myra says she has personally seen for herself the devastation gambling can have on families. “Instead of paying attention to their children and family, fathers of these children who are fond of gaming and gambling do not focus on bonding with their children and spend a lot of time gaming online.

“In addition, if you are not financially well off, your financial resources will suffer resulting in catastrophic consequences like losing your house and ‘other valuable things.’  Hawaii will never be like Las Vegas and will not be a gambling mecca. We do not want that to happen. Besides, Filipinos like to have a change of scenery when they gamble. So that’s why we go to Vegas and will probably keep going even if Hawaii lawmakers legalize gambling.”

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