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Archive for Sunday, May 19, 2002

Gambling supporters’ hopes dashed

May 19, 2002

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— The racetrack owners, pari-mutuel racing groups and legislators who wanted to expand legalized gambling in Kansas had reason to hope this was the year for a bill to pass.

Legislators had to close a huge budget shortfall and faced financial problems that seemed likely to linger for at least another year. Republican leaders struggled to gain approval of tax increases to finance government programs.

When the House approved a bill permitting slot machines and other electronic gambling devices at the five tracks and one unspecified "at-large" site, backers seemed to have some momentum. It was the session's 94th day, but senators could move quickly.

Senators didn't, and the gambling bill remained stuck in committee when legislators adjourned the longest session in Kansas history on its 106th day. The slots bill never became crucial to resolving the state's budget problems.

"It just seemed like it just fizzled out," said Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City, a supporter of the bill.

As approved by the House, the bill would have permitted the new gambling machines at the six sites, with local voters' approval. The state would have received 26.5 percent of the net profits, an amount supporters said could be as much as $106 million annually.

Supporters' inability to parlay the promise of money into Senate approval stunned some of them, especially when many lawmakers acknowledged that the $252 million package of tax increases they passed was not large enough.

"It is really difficult to be nice about what happened," said former House Speaker Robin Jennison, a lobbyist for Ruffin Companies, which owns Wichita Greyhound Park and Camptown Greyhound Park in Frontenac. "We're sitting here just shaking our heads."

Gov. Bill Graves said he believed supporters of expanded gambling in the House spent too much time ironing out the details of their bill, rather than getting a broad proposal over to the Senate earlier in the session.

"The obsession that seemed to exist in the House for THE perfect bill, down to the gnat's eye, was, again, strategically, just a tremendous mistake," Graves said. "The House proponents for gaming should have come to some general consensus of the framework of a gaming bill and rolled it out early."

Legislators, lobbyists and others watching the gambling issue offered an array of explanations for the bill's failure.

First, the Senate was more hostile to the idea of expanding legalized gambling from the outset and the House barely passed it, 63-60.

Supporters said the bill would give the state a way to recapture dollars now being spent at casinos in Missouri and on Indian reservations, while raising money for the state.

But critics said the bill would come with social problems and that the machines would take money away from businesses, particularly those in entertainment.

Some legislators wanted to make gambling part of a budget resolution, but those efforts never got too far.

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