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Gaming: 'We're Already Past That'

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Becky Harris
Photography by Brent Holmes

Becky Harris, first-ever chairwoman of the Gaming Control Board, is already over her historic appointment, which is good — she’s got a lot to do

Becky Harris finds a lot of joy in being a student. Whether studying as an undergrad at Brigham Young University, earning her law degree at BYU’s J. Ruben Clark law school, going back to get a master’s in gaming law at UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law — even taking required continuing legal education classes to maintain her bar certification, Harris says she loves to learn new things.

That’s part of what makes her new job as chairwoman of Nevada’s Gaming Control Board so appealing. One of two regulatory bodies that oversee Nevada’s privileged gaming license holders, the Control Board post ensures that no two days are alike.

“I love it. It is different every single day,” Harris says, in her nondescript state office in the Grant Sawyer building near Downtown. “There’s something new and interesting to learn about and to talk about with my staff, and figure out solutions to challenges that come our way.”

And there is no shortage of challenges for the three-member board (and their colleagues on the state Gaming Commission), from how a privileged industry charged with following local, state, and federal laws deals with marijuana, to the recent nationwide legalization of sports gambling, to new and innovative ideas such as eSports in casinos.

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But Harris is no ordinary Gaming Control Board chair, even if she freely admits she’s never gambled in her life. She’s the very first chairwoman in the board’s history, and only the second woman ever to serve on the board at all. Most of the coverage of her appointment by Gov. Brian Sandoval, in fact, focused on the history that was made.

Harris herself says she had trouble believing it after getting the call from Sandoval’s office asking about her interest.

“It was surreal,” she recalls. “And my answer was, ‘Of course.’ And in my mind, I was thinking, ‘Well, who wouldn’t want to be considered for the Gaming Control Board?’”

But, deep into her plans for re-election to the state Senate, Harris put thoughts of making history out of her mind. “I was honored for the consideration, but never expected that it would ultimately be me,” she says. “There are a fair number of individuals who have a lot of expertise and experience in this area. To even be equated with those names was an honor.”

But Harris’s initial skepticism vanished when her appointment went forward. She quit her bid for re-election to a second term, and began preparing to become one of the top gaming regulators in the world, the keeper of what many in Nevada consider the “gold standard” of oversight for casino companies.

“Becky Harris is a very smart, high-character leader,” says state Sen. Michael Roberson, the Henderson Republican who recruited her to run for Senate District 9 in 2014. “She possesses a strong moral compass and fearless integrity. It’s more important for her to get it right and to take what she believes is the right course of action versus what may be popular at the time. And she’s not afraid to stand up to powerful interests in the process. Those are the attributes we should all want in the state’s chief gaming regulator.” 

 

Back to School

For Harris, the journey to that apex began during her political career. After an unsuccessful run for Assembly from a Henderson-area district in 2012, she was elected as a Republican to the state Senate from District 9, defeating one-term Sen. Justin Jones in a year that saw Republicans win up and down the ticket.

In the 2015 Legislature, Harris chaired the Education Committee, but it was on the Judiciary Committee that she learned she needed some more schooling, after she confronted gaming issues that were brand new to her.

“I learned in the 2015 legislative session that I did not have the depth of understanding with regard to gaming industries that I wanted to have, since it’s our largest industry,” she says. “And I wanted to have more information and articulate questions that I had in a more productive way.” During that session, she applied for — and was accepted to — the inaugural class of the master of laws in gaming law and regulation program at Boyd. She graduated in December 2016.

While Harris intended her education to help her write better laws, she hardly dreamed that she’d soon be enforcing them instead.

“And this just came out of the blue and surprised me,” she said. “Perhaps it had entered my mind that down the road, after some more political service and some experience as a gaming attorney, one day maybe I would be considered for the commission or the board.”

That day came a lot sooner than she thought, as Sandoval signed her commission to the board in January and sealed her place in Nevada gaming history. Harris says she doesn’t consider herself a role model or a trailblazer, but acknowledges that being the first woman in her role does carry extra scrutiny. But she’d prefer to just get down to business rather than evaluate her place in history. Sure, there was some excitement about that aspect of her appointment for a few weeks. But now? “I think we’re already past that point,” she says. 

 

A Surprising Turn

It was on Harris’s fifth day of work that the Wall Street Journal broke a story that caught Nevada’s gaming community by storm, if not surprise: Mogul Steve Wynn had been accused of sexual harassment — and worse — by female employees of his eponymous company. In a head-spinning development that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, Wynn was ousted from his company, and even given a deadline to move out of his villa on the hotel property. A new day had dawned.

Harris and the board are still investigating Wynn — the probe is expected to wrap up this fall — and she’s cautious about commenting about it. But she and the board held a workshop on draft regulations that require all gaming licensees to adopt rules indicating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, and that all companies have to implement a mechanism to allow alleged victims to report allegations and be protected from retaliation.

Some casino companies said the rules were unnecessary, or duplicative of policies already in place at some companies. Harris disagreed.

“It’s important to have clear guidelines in place,” she said. “Certainly under [Gaming] Regulation 5, the board has the authority to call somebody forward for unsuitability. I think that’s vague, particularly in the context of harassment issues.”

Now, would those regulations have happened anyway, even without a woman chairing the board (and two more women serving on the Gaming Commission — Deborah Fuetsch and Sandra Morgan, both also appointed by Sandoval)? Perhaps. But Harris says there are differences between how men and women approach their jobs.

In the state Senate, she said, by way of example, she noticed that men were more likely to look at the issue of foreclosures in black-and-white terms; a mortgage contract was signed, the terms breached, and thus consequences must follow. But Harris, who represented homeowners struggling to keep their houses while wrestling with the Great Recession, says she tended to look beyond that analysis, to the issues of why the mortgage went unpaid, and try to find solutions short of losing a home.

“I think where the difference comes is in the lens through which you see things,” she said. “So the ability to have a more global perspective regarding issues, I think, is important. And that’s a great perspective that the board has now.”

But Harris also acknowledges that, day-to-day, there’s not much difference in how men and women go about doing the job. For instance, she’s in lockstep with the rest of the regulators when it comes to marijuana: Hands off, unless and until Congress acts to decriminalize the drug at the federal level. She believes, like the rest of the regulatory establishment, that Nevada has something to teach other jurisdictions when it comes to regulation of, say, nationwide legalized sports betting.

“For me, the question is, how can we help other jurisdictions do it right?” she says. “I think Nevada has been the leader in how to establish effective gaming regulation and would like to see Nevada continue to provide that guidance.”

And, she says, she believes Nevada has a strong regulatory scheme, notwithstanding events such as the millions in fines paid by Las Vegas Sands Corp. in 2017 to end a criminal bribery case arising out of Macau. (The alleged violations took place long before Harris joined the board.)

For Harris, no one issue is more important than the board’s basic mission, “just trying to make sure that we’re regulating in a fair, neutral, and thoughtful way,” she said. “As a regulator, having the opportunity to help protect and sustain our largest industry has been powerful.”

Although she’s only been on the job for about five months, Harris says she’s faced some busy days. “Some days, I feel like I don’t have enough bandwidth to get everything done that I would like to get done.”

But she wouldn’t bite when asked if she’d ever return to politics, or what’s next for her (her term expires in January 2019, when a newly elected governor will have the option of re-appointing her or choosing someone else).

“I am very happy where I am right now,” she says. “I’m strictly caught in the moment.”

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