The Gambling Control Act (Gambling Act) and state regulations give the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Gambling Control (bureau) and the California Gambling Control Commission (commission) distinct responsibilities for a range of licensing and enforcement activities related to gaming businesses—primarily card rooms—in California. Generally speaking, the bureau is responsible for performing background investigations of applicants seeking licenses that will enable them to own or work in these gaming businesses and for enforcing gaming laws and regulations. The commission, on the other hand, is an independent body that makes licensing decisions in consideration of the bureau's recommendations and, when applicable, takes or upholds disciplinary actions against licensees, such as license revocation. To meet their responsibilities, the bureau and the commission receive funding from the Gambling Control Fund (Gambling Fund). Given the broad discretion that the bureau has in reviewing license applications and that the commission has in reaching determinations about applicants' suitability for licenses, we reviewed these entities' processes to determine the extent to which they have treated applicants consistently. Our report concludes the following:
The Bureau's and Commission's Inefficiencies Have Driven Delays and Compounded Backlogs in the Licensing Process
Our review of 23 gaming license applications found that the bureau regularly exceeded the statutory time frame of 180 days for completing its review of applications. Although the bureau cited a lack of available resources as a factor in the delays, we question its efficiency given that temporary funding it received from the Legislature for 32 additional positions has more than doubled its licensing staff since fiscal year 2015–16. The temporary funding is set to expire in June 2019, yet the bureau has not sufficiently demonstrated what an appropriate permanent staffing level would be. In fact, despite its increased staffing, the bureau still has a backlog of almost 1,000 applications, likely in part because its productivity has diminished since it hired its new staff. In contrast, the commission complied with its separate regulatory time frame of 120 days when it approved applications at its regular licensing meetings. However, its practice of holding evidentiary hearings to deny license applications—an approach the commission explained it implemented to conform to the Gambling Act—contributed to significant delays and use of extra staff resources in its handling of such applications.
The Bureau and Commission Have Charged Fees That Do Not Align With Regulatory Costs, Resulting in an Excessive Surplus and Fairness Concerns
The bureau and the commission have established regulatory fees that do not align with the actual costs that they incur when performing oversight activities. These fees—which applicants and gaming business owners pay—raise questions about the legality and fairness of the current fee structure. In part because some of the fees are higher than necessary, the balance in the Gambling Fund has doubled over the past five years, and it is projected to increase to $97 million by June 2020. If the balance reaches this amount, it will represent a surplus of more than five times the combined annual operating expenditures of the bureau and commission. This excessive surplus has enabled the bureau to engage in inconsistent billing and time-management practices. Specifically, the bureau's billing processes have resulted in many applicants' not paying for the actual costs of their background investigations. Further, bureau licensing staff have reported spending the majority of their time on activities that may not be productive or even directly related to license applications.
The Bureau's and Commission's Inconsistent Regulations and Practices Have Resulted in the Unequal Treatment of Applicants
The bureau and commission have not ensured that their regulations and practices treat all applicants consistently and fairly. Specifically, the commission's regulations create unjustified differences in terms of the time frames in which individuals must submit applications, the circumstances under which they may hold temporary licenses, and the notifications they receive about their application status, among other issues. The bureau's procedures for conducting background investigations further contribute to the inconsistent treatment of applicants because the procedures require different levels of review for different license types without justification. Finally, the commission lacks procedures to ensure that it allows applicants to withdraw from the hearing process, and as a result, it publishes decisions that include unnecessary negative information about some applicants. Because the bureau and commission have considerable discretion in reviewing license applications and in making licensing decisions, respectively, any inconsistencies that affect applicants' experiences during the licensing process may exacerbate perceptions of bias or lead to questions of fairness.
Summary of Recommendations
To ensure the prudent use of Gambling Fund resources, the Legislature should not approve any requests to make permanent the funding for the bureau's 32 additional positions. Instead, the Legislature should extend the funding for an additional two years to give the bureau time to clear its backlog of applications and to implement our recommendations to improve its application processing.
To prevent delays and the unnecessary use of resources in the processing of licensing applications, the Legislature should amend the Gambling Act to allow the commission to take action at its regular licensing meetings rather than requiring it to hold evidentiary hearings.
To ensure that it approaches its backlog strategically and that it is accountable for its use of resources, the bureau should establish a formal plan by November 2019 for completing its review of the remaining pending applications.
To ensure that it fairly charges applicants for the costs of their background investigations, the bureau should establish and implement policies by July 2019 that require staff to properly and equitably report and bill the time they spend conducting such investigations.
To prevent delays and the unnecessary use of resources, the commission should, following the Legislature's amendment to the law that we recommend, revise its relevant regulations to specify that it is not required to hold evidentiary hearings unless applicants request that it do so.
Bureau and Commission
To better align the revenue in the Gambling Fund with the costs of the activities that the fund supports, the bureau and the commission should conduct cost analyses of those activities by July 2020, and they should adjust their fees to reflect the actual costs of the oversight activities they perform.
The bureau agreed with most of our recommendations and identified actions that it is taking or planning to take to implement them. However, it disagreed with our recommendation that the Legislature extend temporary funding for additional bureau staff for two years instead of making that funding permanent. The commission generally agreed with our recommendations and identified actions it is taking or planning to take to implement them. However, it disagreed with our implementation time frames for two recommendations.