COVER STORY INFLUENCERS Peggi O'Keefe

Peggi O'Keefe (Andy Colwell for Colorado Politics)

Peggi O’Keefe has a reputation as one of the heavy hitters under the Gold Dome of the state Capitol in Denver.

Her 20 years in government affairs and public policy is reflected in her high-profile clients, including her current work speaking truth to power for the Colorado Gaming Association, serving as both its lobbyist and executive. She maintains her own firm, Clear Strategies.

Her client list has included Amazon, AT&T, the Association for Accessible Medicines (the generic pharmaceuticals trade group), Enterprise Holdings, Workers Comp Coalition, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, 7Eleven and Great Western Oil and Gas.

She's also a lawyer, which comes in handy speaking the convoluted statutory language of her trade. She was educated at the University of Denver law school and holds membership in the Colorado Bar Association.

She is the board treasurer of AdvocacyDenver , which looks out for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Before she was a lobbyist, O'Keefe was the policy director for the Colorado Senate. Then she ran political campaigns, where she sported an admirable record of elected candidates at the state and local level. O'Keefe continues to consult on candidate and initiative campaigns statewide for candidates and elected officials on both sides of the aisle, she said.

Colorado Politics pinned her down for an interview:

Colorado Politics: Gambling is still a little understood thing in Colorado. Where can I do it, what is its limits and what does it fund?

Peggi O'Keefe: In 1990, the voters passed an amendment to the Colorado Constitution which created the basic regulatory framework and outlines the beneficiaries for gaming taxes. Voters have approved gaming in the historic communities of Central City, Blackhawk and Cripple Creek. Efforts to expand gambling elsewhere in the state have repeatedly failed by over 40 points. In 2014, voters overwhelmingly said no (70.23%) to expanding gambling by allowing slot machines throughout Colorado.

Gaming was initially limited to a $5 maximum single bet; however in 2020, Colorado voters allowed the three gaming communities to determine the bet limits. As a result, the gaming towns removed the maximum limit and increased the types of games that can be played in their communities. Our casinos have worked with the Division of Gaming (the regulator) to offer a wide variety of games that meet the needs of our customers

The popularity of Colorado casinos has resulted in over $400 million in taxes in 2020 (a decrease from previous years due to COVID-19). That paid out $11.9 million to community colleges; $15.3 million to the communities of Cripple Creek, Blackhawk and Central City; $1.8 million to Gilpin and Teller counties; $14.3 million to the State Historical Fund; and $25.5 million to Colorado’s General Fund. You can see the distribution map here: http://coloradogaming.com/community-

In 2020, Colorado legalized sports betting with a 10% tax on all casino profits. The tax revenue generated by sports betting supports Colorado’s effort to achieve water security, funding grant projects specified in the state’s water plan. In its first year, sports betting raised almost $8 million for Colorado water, and that number is projected to grow every year.

CP:  You are a heavy hitter at the Capitol. How receptive is the current legislature to your issues?

O'Keefe: Legislators often have a background in a specific area (business, education, criminal justice or health care) but not many come with an in-depth understanding of gaming. Elected officials may have visited the gaming towns a few times or Las Vegas, but most are not familiar with how gaming came to the state and the limits the Colorado Constitution and voters have put in place.

Despite the clarity of the Colorado Constitution and the past votes that have kept gaming in the gaming towns, there are attempts every year to try to expand it outside of those towns. When legislators see the language in the constitution and hear from their local constituents, the will of the voters usually prevails.

We’ve had some fabulous champions at both the state and local level. In 2019, we worked closely with Speaker Alec Garnett and his cosponsors to craft a legislative referendum allowing for sports betting in Colorado. He worked to ensure that stakeholders from all interested parties were at the table when drafting the bill. That type of collaboration has resulted in comprehensive gaming policy that benefits everyone in Colorado.

CP: What is the CGA focused on these days?

O'Keefe: We are focused on getting people up to Colorado’s great casinos! Part of that is making sure that casino games stay in the casinos and communities where voters want them. Last year, we saw an attempt to expand keno statewide through the legislature as an extension of the lottery. This would have resulted in casino style games in restaurants and bars in communities that didn’t vote for them.

Over the years, the Colorado General Assembly has rightly taken steps to ban gambling in illegal gambling arcades (HB 15-1047) and illegal slot machines (HB 18-1234) in our communities. By considering allowing the Colorado Lottery to install keno and video gambling, the legislature would be side-stepping the regulatory process and the will of the people. In fact, when Colorado defined “games of skill” in 2018 to prevent slot machines in Colorado businesses outside of the three gaming towns, then Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez said he received numerous calls from constituents complaining that they didn’t want to live next to a casino.

In addition to sidestepping the voters, restaurants and bars would be required to train staff, and staff would be required to add another job responsibility of monitoring and managing keno and video gambling to their already stretched capacity. Colorado restaurants are already experiencing staff shortages.

When introduced in 2021, the proposal did not provide funds for training or equipment for restaurants. Owners would potentially be required to pay for additional costly training for employees themselves, including paid time away from serving customers and screens to display winning numbers.

CP: How much can the industry do to combat compulsive gambling?

O'Keefe: We must combat compulsive gambling as a community. That said, casinos have really come together to deter and discourage compulsive gambling. Keeping Colorado’s gamming communities in out-of-the-way entertainment destinations, rather than easily accessible everyday locations is a win in that effort.

All Colorado Gaming Association member casinos promote and support responsible gambling. We provide regular training to casino employees and customers on problem and underage gambling.

The CGA helps to fund, and works in conjunction with, the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado (PGCC) to offer persons who are unable to gamble responsibly a voluntary

self-exclusion program. This program allows persons to be removed from casino marketing lists, cancel slot club memberships and cancel any check-cashing privileges with all casinos in Colorado. The Colorado Gaming Association takes its self-exclusion program seriously, as it is intended to help persons with gambling addiction overcome their illness and seek treatment.

CP: How are casinos and casino towns recovering from the pandemic?

O'Keefe: Our gaming towns and counties were some of the worst hit in the nation in 2020. We worked very closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Division of Gaming and our local health departments to come up with best practices from around the country to keep our employees and guests safe. After closing for several months and slowly reopening with enhanced safety protocols, the casinos are open at full capacity.

As the pandemic lingers, Colorado casinos continue to feel the economic ramifications. Like so many in the tourism and recreation industry, casinos are struggling with staff shortages and finding employees to fill vacant positions.

CP: What's been the effect of online gambling?

O'Keefe: Online gambling in Colorado is limited to sports betting which was approved by voters in 2019. The program was lauded in its first year because of voter-empowered and coordinated efforts between the Division of Gaming, the legislature, industry stakeholders and communities.

Sports betting rolled out during the pandemic when there were limited athletic events. Despite the challenging time, sports betting is proving to be very popular in Colorado – not surprising since we have loyal fans in this state.

CP: What's next for the industry? Will we ever have a casino in Denver?

O'Keefe: The gaming communities are becoming more of a tourist destination that provide customers with a wide variety of entertainment options. Guests can enjoy great restaurants and shopping during their visit in addition to playing blackjack and seeing live entertainment. More casinos are adding hotel rooms to meet the increased demand for overnight stays. It really is an exciting time for gaming in Colorado.

A casino will come to Denver when the voters ask for and approve it. Until then, take a drive up the mountain, enjoy the beautiful views and have a great time in our Colorado casinos.

FAST FACTS:

Where did you grow up? My dad was career army, so I lived in some fabulous places all over the country and world.

What was your favorite song in high school? I’m not sure I could narrow it to a song, but as a child of the 80s I still love the Beastie Boys!

What's your favorite game in the casino? Craps! It’s a great game to play with friends and strangers because everyone is on the same team and the odds are not too bad!

Do you have pets and how did they get their name?  We have dogs, a cat, fish and Eiffel the Turtle. The furry ones are all named with a New Orleans theme (the twin newfoundlands are Jacquimo and Evangeline, and the cat is named after Tchoupitoulas Street). My mom lived there as a child, and I’ve always loved the city.

Meat, fish or salad? If spaghetti isn’t an acceptable answer, I’ll go with shellfish.

Who's your mentor? My high school AP government teacher sparked my interest in politics and policy. His knowledge and enthusiasm really set the stage for my career in campaigns and politics.

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