Archive for Monday, November 24, 2003

Fight over revenues is obstacle to gambling

November 24, 2003


— In 1995, legislators approved gambling compacts with four Indian tribes, decisions that brought casinos to Kansas.

But since then, a further expansion of gambling has been a dicey proposition. Proposals to permit private companies to operate nontribal casinos have failed, as have measures to allow the Kansas Lottery to run them. Legislators also have refused to allow slot machines at dog and horse tracks.

The failures have come when the state has been flush with cash and when it desperately needed money to sustain its programs. Even Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' open advocacy couldn't get supporters the votes they needed this year.

'Tremendous greed'

Gambling promoters have proven a diverse and fractious lot, including tribes, tracks, civic leaders and fraternal groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

They sometimes have competing interests that slow efforts to win passage of a single proposal.

"There's tremendous greed," said Glenn Thompson, who leads the Stand Up for Kansas anti-gambling group. "Greed is what's driving the diversity we see."

Thompson is, of course, inclined to view gambling promoters' motives more harshly than others watching the debate. But he's correct that too many people want a share of the booty from expanded gambling to make it easy to accomplish.

Add a community to the list of those that can have slot machines or casino games, and the support such a move brings could lose the votes of legislators nervous about too wide an expansion.

The difficulty of the task was apparent last week, when a task force appointed by Sebelius to review gambling issues talked for a full afternoon without settling on any proposals to forward to her.

"We've gone around and back and forth," said chairman Tom Wright, a Topeka attorney. "It's going to be a trick."

The first small step toward casinos came in 1974, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit nonprofit organizations to operate bingo games. In 1986, voters ap-proved a state lottery and betting on dog and horse races.

The last two amendments opened the door to Indian casinos be-cause of a 1988 federal law that said tribes could operate whatever category of gambling a state operated. The category with pari-mutuel racing and lotteries also included casino games.

Gaming begins

Starting in 1992, then-Gov. Joan Finney spent three years trying and failing to persuade legislators to approve tribal gambling compacts. Only after Bill Graves became governor did what some lawmakers saw as inevitable arrive.

The advent of casinos in Missouri -- first as real, then faux, river boats -- intensified the debate, particularly in nearby Wyandotte County, as Kansas dog and horse tracks foundered.

Track owners have been ardent supporters of new gambling, if it brings slot machines and other gambling devices to their sites.

The tribes, of course, have a tremendous stake, given their current corner on casino games.

In a deft move, the Kickapoo and Sac and Fox proposed a joint, $175 million super-casino in Wyandotte County, promising the state a share of the riches in exchange for a monopoly. Even gambling opponents could accept the proposal, given that it could cut the number of casinos from four to three.

Who's in?

Yet such a move shuts out people clamoring for a share.

Sebelius' gambling committee debated whether Wyandotte County could support one, two or three casinos but did not reach any definitive conclusion. Other members talked of casinos in Wichita, Dodge City, Junction City and the Pittsburg area.

At the same time, VFWs and other fraternal groups, having seen the luster of their bingo parlors fade, have pushed for inclusion of their lodges.

Including them in any proposal inevitably leads to a backlash.

"I just don't think people want it all over the state," said Bonita Gooch, of Wichita, editor of the Community Voice newspaper and a member of Sebelius' task force.

Distribution of wealth

And another battle comes annually over how to divide potential profits.

The list of who gets some money can grow in debate. A bill the House approved this year -- which failed in the Senate -- even set aside money for Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City and a bison preserve near Pittsburg.

Another issue is how much control the state exercises through its lottery. While the Kansas Supreme Court has said the state constitution's definition of lottery was broad enough to encompass slots and blackjack, the enterprises still must be state-owned.

If the state doesn't exercise enough control, it may be a mere regulator -- which raises legal questions.

But true control, said Sac and Fox attorney Paul Alexander, implies that lottery officials will be making daily decisions about which tables open, what the slots pay out and what freebies customers receive -- something that likely would scare off investors.

"No Las Vegas company is going to come in here if the state controls the chip," Alexander said.

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