Crafting gambling legislation can be a daunting task for any state lawmaker. Getting it passed can be even harder.
But for nearly 30 years, the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States has brought lawmakers together with regulators and industry leaders to discuss how their states can keep pace with advancing technology in an ever-changing gaming environment.
This week NCLGS makes a homecoming of sorts, holding its biannual conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the hometown of the man who created NCLGS in 1995.
When former Florida state legislator Steve Geller first convened NCLGS, the focus was on brick-and-mortar casinos, horse racing and lottery.
This week’s conference, running Wednesday-Saturday, also has panels on sports betting, online casinos, responsible gambling, Indian gaming, daily fantasy sports, esports and combatting illegal gambling.
More than 40 legislators from around the country will attend the conference.
“What makes NCLGS unique is it’s about the only conference where all the decision-makers, legislators and regulators, meet in one spot,” said Shawn Fluharty, current NCLGS president. “Our board is all elected officials.”
Anatomy of a gaming legislative conference
Geller told PlayUSA the idea for NCLGS came from insurance. He was serving as president of the National Conference of Insurance Legislators.
“I thought we needed a group like that to deal with gambling issues,” Geller said. “So I had my staff send out letters to committee chairs of 40-something states that had some form of gambling. We heard back from legislators from 15 states that they would be interested.”
After an organizational meeting in Dallas, NCLGS held its first conference in Denver in 1996.
NCLGS wasn’t created to promote gambling but to ensure the industry was properly regulated as gambling expanded across the country.
“We do not take any position pro or anti-gambling. We were the only group you could go to and see the president of the American Gaming Association and the reverend who headed the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Because our attitude is it’s up to each state to decide if they want gambling. But if you’re going to have it, it needs to be properly regulated and we think legislators need to hear all sides.”
Geller, who spent 20 years in the Florida legislature, served as president for the first seven years of NCLGS. He continues to take part as NCLGS general counsel. He remains in public service as a commissioner for Broward County, where Fort Lauderdale is located.
Industry involvement in NCLGS
Gaming industry representatives were part of NCLGS from the beginning to help provide lawmakers and regulators with the information they needed to understand the industry.
But it wasn’t until Spectrum Gaming took over as executive director of the conference in 2015 that the opportunity NCLGS provided industry representatives to meet with lawmakers and regulators all in one place became widespread knowledge.
“I recall speaking to a gaming CEO and mentioning NCLGS,” said Michael Pollock, former managing director at Spectrum. “He looks at me and says, ‘What’s pickle juice?’ NCLGS was a well-kept secret.”
Spectrum had connections with legislators working on gaming legislation and industry executives to get the word out about NCLGS. Now, about 300 people attend each NCLGS conference.
Pollock spoke with PlayUSA about the collaboration between Spectrum and NCLGS.
“It was a perfect fit because the principles behind NCLGS are virtually identical with ours. It’s promoting best practices in gaming. I think one of the things NCLGS has shown is that a dialogue is central to effective regulation. So if we can bring legislators, who are the ultimate decision-makers in gaming — everything starts and stops with them — in a room with regulators, operators, suppliers and investors, barriers come down.”
Political parties don’t matter at NCLGS
NCLGS is a non-partisan organization. Fluharty is a Democrat and vice president Christie Carpino is a Republican. But they don’t talk about party politics.
“The thing that’s greatest about it is everyone puts their political hat away,” said Bill Coley, a former Ohio legislator who served as president of NCLGS. “You don’t see a lot of people fighting about are you a Democrat or a Republican. They’re all for good public policy. I think that’s always been the crux of what NCLGS was about.”
NCLGS is one of the rare meetings of legislatures where no one separates into political parties. That’s how Geller wanted it.
“This is what I envisioned when we started this,” Geller said. “We have well over 100 legislators and regulators attend, and I honestly couldn’t tell you what political party most of the members are. NCLGS is absolutely nonpartisan.”
Sports betting sparks NCLGS interest
For much of the history of NCLGS, most states were at very different positions in considering gambling legislation.
After the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, that changed. Almost every state simultaneously began considering sports betting legislation.
“When PASPA was struck down in 2018, it really invigorated NCLGS,” Coley said.
Fluharty first attended NCLGS in 2015. The experience he gained at the conference had him ready to help West Virginia get out front of sports betting, passing legislation two months before the Supreme Court overturned PASPA.
“At NCLGS, we were talking about sports betting long before it became a hot topic,” Fluharty said. “The discussion started as it was still going through the courts, and that was a precursor to me getting it passed in West Virginia.”
Collaboration leads to friendly competition
NCLGS can breed competition among lawmakers to pass legislation modernizing gaming in their states.
Jon Ford, a prior NCLGS president, spoke of battling then-Michigan Rep. Brandt Iden on who would get a sports betting bill passed in their state first.
“We kind of modeled our legislation after each other’s and had a friendly competition of who would get theirs passed first,” Ford said. “We all learn from each other.”
Iden appeared to have won but the governor vetoed the bill, allowing Ford to get Indiana sports betting across the finish line first. However, Iden soon one-upped him by helping to pass Michigan online casino legislation simultaneously with sports betting.
Ford couldn’t get online casino legislation passed in Indiana before leaving office last year.
“In hindsight, the strategy that Michigan used where they did both at once would have been the best way to go,” Ford said.
Online casino looms large in future of NCLGS
At this conference, NCLGS is assembling a committee including legislators, regulators, academia and industry representatives to produce iGaming model legislation. NCLGS will reveal the iGaming legislative blueprint at the next conference in July.
“A lot of states have legalized sports betting and now iGaming is moving front and center as the next wave of gaming legislation. We want to put together recommendations and best practices for legislators to use as a resource when they go back to their states.”
One panel at NCLGS acknowledges that online casino legislation has yet to find the same success in state legislatures as sports betting. The panel addresses how to close the education gap on iGaming.
But Fluharty is the right man in charge of NCLGS to help state legislatures move forward with online casino legislation. He helped West Virginia pass an iGaming bill in 2019 when most states were just starting to look at sports betting.
“For any state to get the needle moving on sports betting or iGaming, you need to have a legislator or group of legislators to champion the issue,” Fluharty said. “Going to NCLGS gave me the knowledge to champion the issue when I went back to my legislature.”