Archive for Saturday, April 30, 2005

Future of gambling tied to school finance case

April 30, 2005

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— Lawmakers did a lot of talking but took little action this session when it came to casinos, but gambling could become popular really fast if the Kansas Supreme Court rules against legislators in a school funding case.

When the Senate adjourned Friday evening, two gambling proposals remained in play but did not have enough votes for passage. Lawmakers hope to wrap up their session Saturday and Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said gambling isn't on the call sheet.

In January, the Supreme Court told lawmakers to change the $2.7 billion school funding system because it failed to meet a constitutional duty to provide for the continuous improvement of education.

Legislators approved an additional $142 million for next year's education budget. The justices will decide after arguments May 11 whether that's enough and if the money is distributed fairly.

If justices rule the Legislature didn't meet the court's mandate, lawmakers most likely will be back this summer trying to find more money.

If that happens, said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, "Gambling is ready to be teed up when they decide they would rather vote for gambling than a tax increase."

Expanded gambling never gained the needed traction for passage this session. Some senators say it ended up one vote short of the 21 required for passage.

A bill allowing "destination" casinos was left on the Senate floor and a plan for an Indian casino near Kansas Speedway was stuck in committee.

If the court ruling forces lawmakers to find more money for education, there are few options. Aside from expanded gambling, the choices are cutting services or increasing taxes -- and most lawmakers don't want to go home and try to justify either.

"If we absolutely have to put more money in education, gaming will be more popular," said Sen. Jay Scott Emler, R-Lindsborg. "The whole thing boils down to how much gaming and where it will be."

Sen. Jim Barone, D-Frontenac, agreed: "I think it will get prettier and prettier to more people if the Supreme Court rules the way many think they will rule."

Kansas already has a state lottery, four casinos operated by American Indian tribes and parimutuel dog and horse tracks. But many legislators oppose any expansion, citing moral objections, increased crime, gambling addictions and economic concerns.

"Why tell kids you're paying for their education through gambling?" said Sen. Nick Jordan, R-Shawnee. "I don't think it's the right way to do it."

The "destination" casinos would be owned by the state but operated by private companies under contract and slot machines would be at the racetracks. Supporters say the state's take eventually would be $300 million.

But they say it would generate $150 million in the upcoming budget year beginning July 1 because operators would pay $15,000 for each slot machine they want to install.

The other proposal is a compact allowing the Kickapoo and Sac and Fox tribes to build a $210 million hotel-and-casino complex near the Kansas Speedway and allowing slot machines at parimutuel tracks.

The state would get at least $50 million a year, though the tribes think it could be higher. The state currently gets nothing from the four tribal casinos.

The compact appeals to legislators who can accept an expansion of gambling but don't want to see casinos throughout the state.

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