Frank Fahrenkopf, the nation’s most prominent casino lobbyist, had some advice for Massachusetts regulators on Thursday. Keep taxes reasonable. Don’t overregulate.
“We’re an unusual industry,’’ he said. “We want regulation.’’ But be smart about it.
The president of the American Gaming Association, which represents commercial casinos, was the keynote speaker for the state gambling commission’s first-ever information forum, despite criticism from anticasino groups.
His presence in such a high-profile position underscored the evolution of the gambling climate in Massachusetts following passage of a law authorizing three casinos and a slot machine parlor.
“We are part of the gaming industry now,’’ said Stephen Crosby, chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, in defending the commission’s choice of Fahrenkopf to headline the event.
Fahrenkopf addressed the panel and a crowd of 100 or more at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Panels of specialists, including several former New Jersey casino regulators, followed the keynote address during the daylong forum.
“The typical casino patron has a higher than average annual income and is either a college graduate or has some college education,’’ said Fahrenkopf. “And they no longer need to come to Nevada to visit a casino because, chances are, with commercial or tribal casinos in 38, soon to be 40 states, there is a casino within easy driving distance.’’
Today, there are 566 commercial casinos in 22 states, he said, plus more than 400 tribal casinos across the country.
Casinos have multiplied, he said, as public officials have come to see the benefits. Commercial casinos in 2010 generated $49.5 billion in consumer spending and 400,000 direct jobs, he said. When combined with related spending on supplies and other services, the industry supported $125 billion in spending and 875,000 jobs, he said. Perhaps most interesting for local public officials, the commercial casino industry in 2010 paid almost $16 billion in taxes, he said.
Fahrenkopf peppered the audience with positive poll numbers, such as: 83 percent of elected officials and community leaders in casino jurisdictions say the facilities met or exceeded their expectations.
He offered just one poll that was a downer: about 1 percent of the adult population is addicted to gambling, a number that has held steady for more than 30 years. But even in that, Fahrenkopf found a bright side.
“If more casinos caused more gambling problems, then the explosive growth of casino jurisdictions over the last two decades would have seen a proportionate increase in the prevalence rate of pathological gambling,’’ he said.
He talked at length about the addiction research the association funds through the National Center for Responsible Gaming, which it founded in 1996.
Fahrenkopf, 72, is a lawyer who led the Republican National Committee through most of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Despite his partisan roots, he counts as friends Democrats Bill Clinton and former US senator Paul Kirk of Massachusetts, appointed to serve after Edward M. Kennedy died in office.
He has been the casino industry’s force on Capitol Hill since 1995, when a small group of industry insiders, including casino mogul Steve Wynn, persuaded Fahrenkopf to take the job as head of the new casino trade association. He is the only chief the association has ever had.
The group Stop Predatory Gambling sharply objected to the commission’s decision to invite Fahrenkopf to address its first symposium. They likened his address to inviting tobacco executives to talk about the effects of smoking.
“I know there were objections to my speaking here,’’ Fahrenkopf said, in the interview after his remarks. “I say bring them in, let ’em come in and testify.’’
The social costs, opponents say, include crime, addiction, broken families, and traffic.
“It’s clear that is not the case,’’ said Fahrenkopf, citing studies and dismissing all complaints but one. “The sky is not going to fall. Except one thing which I can’t exclude - traffic. You’re going to have traffic.’’
Casino opponent Jessie Powell, of Middleborough, attended the forum “to listen to the propaganda,’’ she said. She was not buying Fahrenkopf’s rosy polls and statistics. “The problem with them is they won’t fund any truly independent research.’’
The gambling commission has no interest in refighting the war over whether the state should allow casinos, but Powell and other opponents have already coined a slogan for a ballot referendum campaign: “Repeal the Casino Deal.’’Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark