For better or worse, Kansas' inability to reach consensus on what kind of gambling operations the state should pursue is in danger of leaving the state so far behind neighboring competition that the whole question soon may be moot.
Last year, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius asked Kansas gambling interests to propose a strategy for expanded gaming in the state. When the group was unable to reach consensus on a plan, the governor proposed a plan so broad that her approach appeared to be to throw the door open and let the chips fall where they may.
Her plan would accommodate up to five "world class" state-owned casinos and slot machines at the state's five pari-mutuel race tracks and about 240 fraternal clubs in the state. The bill passed by the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee makes the proposal even broader by adding bowling alleys, driving ranges and other locales to the list of places that could have slot machines.
Although many observers doubt the state could support five major casinos, various cities are hoping to get in the game. A report from a national consulting firm indicates Wichita is the location where a destination casino and resort most likely would be successful. An earlier report said southeast Kansas had the best chance. Dodge City officials also are eager to give it a try.
Many people believe Wyandotte County has a prime location for a casino near the Kansas Speedway complex. Kansas Indian tribes have eyed that location for some time and may pursue a compact to operate a casino at the site if state efforts fall through.
That's likely to be the case, at least for this year. Although the issue is by no means dead, local lawmakers at a breakfast meeting Saturday said it seemed unlikely the Legislature could reach consensus on this issue during its wrap-up session, which begins April 28.
In the meantime, other states are moving ahead with plans that will make it even harder for Kansas to compete for whatever dollars are spent at gaming operations. Missouri casinos already are in place in Kansas City. Oklahoma recently approved legislation that would allow electronic games at horse tracks in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Claremont and dozens of Indian gaming facilities. Nebraska lawmakers will let the voters decide Nov. 2 whether to allow two casinos in that state.
As the competition from other states increases, Kansas will have to reassess carefully the likelihood of the state reaping profits even close to the $250 million Gov. Sebelius and her staff envisioned. Lawmakers also will have to weigh any income the state might reap against the social and law enforcement problems that expanded gambling might cause and the risk to the state and individual communities if profits fail to meet expectations.
Legislators should focus on education funding and not spend more time on gambling proposals during the wrap-up session, but this issue almost certainly will be back next year. By then, the state may either see a clearer direction to follow on expanded gambling or find itself so hopelessly behind its competition that it simply decides to drop out of the game.