As he prepares to celebrate his fourth anniversary as the gaming industry’s top lobbyist in the United States, Bill Miller has noticed something unique about the companies he represents.
“Nobody says when they’re introducing a gaming bill in a state capital, ‘Well, we’re going to take it (gambling) into the richest, toniest community,’” Miller said during an interview this week at his office in Washington, D.C.
“No, we go into places that nobody else wants to go and we create economic transformation.”
On January 14, 2019, Miller became the third president and chief executive of the American Gaming Association (AGA), which was founded in 1995 after a failed attempt by Congress to impose a federal tax on gaming revenue.
On the same day Miller started his new job, the U.S. Department of Justice released a memo declaring all interstate gambling transmissions violated the U.S. Wire Act of 1961.
Although courts eventually rejected the memo, that initial crisis proved to be a harbinger for more troubles to come.
Just one year later, the coronavirus pandemic struck, essentially paralyzing commercial and tribal gaming operations for almost an entire year.
“When a crisis would come up, Tom Donohue — my old boss at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — used to say, ‘Sometimes you have to get dressed on your way to the prom,’” Miller said.
No one knew how to cope with COVID-19, and improvisation was the order of the day.
Long considered a sin industry, gambling had never received federal aid from Congress for disasters such as September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 or Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012.
All that changed when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, in March 2020 made the casino industry eligible alongside other industries for $454bn in federal loans.
The COVID-19 crisis also elevated the AGA’s status among its members who were impressed by its lobbying efforts in Congress, according to Miller.
“It wasn’t that our members didn’t value the AGA, but I don’t think they thought the AGA was essential,” Miller said.
After the gaming industry weathered the worst of COVID-19, Miller focused on another challenge which has become almost like a crusade for him — illegal gambling operations.
Miller shows no inhibition in describing illegal gambling as an “existential threat” to the commercial and tribal gaming companies he represents.
At the East Coast Gaming Congress last September in Atlantic City, Miller essentially issued a call to arms for his industry to maintain a “real, sustained focus on destroying the illegal offshore market.”
When asked during this week’s interview if he thinks he might have gone too far sometimes with his scorched-earth rhetoric, Miller did not hesitate.
“I don’t think so,” he said, but acknowledged he is “strident” when it comes to the illegal gambling industry.
Licensed gambling companies despise illegal competitors who pay nothing in regulatory fees or taxes but still capture large market share.
Miller said one of his biggest disappointments during his four-year tenure at the AGA has been the tepid response of law enforcement in cracking down on illegal gambling operations.
“We’re seeing progress, but not as fast as I would like to see it,” Miller said.
Macau and its stagnant gaming market due in large part to China’s draconian COVID-19 restrictions is also a concern for Miller because of the struggles of casino concessionaires Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts.
“That market is so important, not just to the three American operators that are in Macau but because of all the suppliers in the region,” Miller said.
The curse that keeps on giving to the gaming industry in the United States is the national media, and specifically the New York Times, which published a series of highly critical articles of the rapidly expanding sports-betting sector in November and December.
Despite the negative publicity, Miller said, “my view is that we should always engage the press.”
Miller recalled a conversation he once had with a gambling industry skeptic.
“I’m a religious man and so I have always had my reservations about your industry,” the man told Miller.
“But I can’t deny what your industry means economically.”