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Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

Analysis: Gaming bill’s foes betting on more

February 22, 2004

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— The disappointment in Garry Winget's voice was obvious last week as he asked the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee to ignore the last sentence of his written testimony.

The line read: "Note that the opponents to gambling are not self-serving."

"I was totally caught off-guard," the president of Kansans for Addiction Prevention said after the hearing, a forum for people opposed to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' gambling plan. A day earlier, supporters of the measure had their say.

Winget said he had testified before legislative committees at least three times in the past. In those instances, he said, the people who spoke out against gambling did so because they just oppose gambling.

But about half of the people who identified themselves as opponents of the bill last week actually support expanded gambling but were upset Sebelius' plan wouldn't give them a piece of the action. Their discontent is a significant factor in the debate.

Under the governor's plan, the state would own up to five "world-class, destination casinos," pari-mutuel tracks would get 2,500 slot machines and fraternal organizations would get up to five slot machines apiece.

One lobbyist told the committee he opposed the plan because convenience stores wouldn't get slot machines. The owner of a bowling alley said it's not fair that fraternal organizations would get slot machines but bowling alleys would not.

A spokesman for tribal casinos said expanded gambling would have a negative effect on the state, moments after he lauded the positive economic virtues of gambling for the tribes.

Even the Kansas Charities Cooperative chimed in, suggesting that if fraternal halls were permitted to have slot machines, groups that operate bingo games should get them, too.

House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said the plan includes "everything but the kitchen sink." Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, said the plan exceeds anything that had been proposed before in the state.

For more than a decade, Kansas lawmakers have been trying to expand gambling in one form or another. The refrain this session among supporters is that millions of Kansas dollars are going into Missouri coffers at a time when Kansas could use the revenue.

It's hard to argue against that, but bingo operators and bowling proprietors are making the same point. How can it be fair that members of a fraternal organization get video lottery terminals and the revenue that goes with them, while the bingo halls and bowling alleys do not?

It's easy to see the dilemma for lawmakers, especially when opposition from the tribes, threats of legal challenges and complaints from pari-mutuel tracks that 2,500 slot machines aren't enough, are added to the mix.

Groups that want to be included in any gambling package are no more self-serving than the state itself in this debate. They're business owners who, like the state, are facing hard economic times and outside competition for their discretionary income.

Real opponents believe that gambling is a drain on society, and in essence a tax on the poor. They say it ruins lives, hurts loved ones and strains government resources. And they have statistics to back up their arguments.

But opponents who just don't want to be left out, are likely to provide more significant trouble for Sebelius' plan. That's why few in the Statehouse are willing to place bets on how the issue will play out.

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