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Archive for Thursday, March 23, 2006

Supporters still hope to revive debate over casinos, slot machines

March 23, 2006

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— Opponents have driven a stake through a bill allowing state-owned casinos and slot machines at dog and horse tracks, but the idea was still wriggling Wednesday, ready to arise when legislators become desperate for money.

And they could become desperate soon, as they try to figure out how to meet court-ordered spending increases for public schools without busting the budget.

The pattern has been familiar for more than a decade. Legislators kill a bill to expand gambling, only to watch gambling promoters remain at the Statehouse, hoping for an opportunity to try again.

"Gambling is never dead in the Legislature," said Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who opposes expanded gambling. "There's a high degree of interest still in advancing that legislation."

This year's debate has been confined to the Senate, which hasn't approved a proposal to expand gambling since 1993. House leaders have said they won't pursue the issue unless a bill comes out of the Senate first, though Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, said Wednesday that he's working on a bill.

Last week, the Senate voted 20-16 against a bill to permit state-owned casinos in Wyandotte County and in either Crawford or Cherokee County, leaving it five votes short of passage.

The measure also would have permitted 5,000 slots at tracks in Kansas City, Wichita and Frontenac and Dodge City, if a track is built in that town.

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, declared the year's gambling debate over after the vote.

But almost immediately, the Senate Ways and Means Committee introduced another casino-and-slots proposal. And senators had mixed opinions about gambling Wednesday, suggesting leaders would try again if they believe they have the votes to pass a bill.

"There is still a lot of interest in gambling, but without additional commitments, additional votes, it probably won't happen this year," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has long supported expanded gambling to provide additional revenues for state government, particularly for aid to Kansas' 300 school districts.

The House planned to debate a bill today that would phase in a $420 million increase over three years. Senate leaders have a three-year plan worth $660 million. Absent new revenue, legislators would face closing a budget shortfall next year under either plan.

"Obviously, it's going to take some money to fund it," said former Rep. John Ballou, who now lobbies for the Ruffin Cos., owner of Wichita Greyhound Park. "The money will have to come from someplace new, because current revenues are not going to sustain it."

The state has a lottery and allows betting on dog and horse races. It also has compacts allowing four American Indian tribes to operate casinos on their reservations in northeast Kansas.

Some legislators, hoping to end the debate, have been looking for a way to resolve gambling issues. They've embraced the idea of a new compact with two or more tribes, allowing them to operate a Wyandotte County casino, giving the state a share of the profits in exchange for limiting new gambling elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the tribes gave legislators a study by William Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, suggesting, not surprisingly, that a tribal casino was the best option for the state.

Sebelius negotiated a compact in 2004, but it has languished. The U.S. Interior Department would have to approve an off-reservation casino site - something Congress is considering banning.

"It's very clear that a compact will never be approved in Washington. Our congressional delegation does not favor it," Sebelius said. "I think that's really off the table. Either we figure out something to do at the state level or we let it go."

What's keeping the debate alive year after year is gambling promoters' expectations of making money for managing state-owned casinos or track-based slots.

"The driving force behind this is money, a very large amount of money for a very few individuals who will become much richer," Barnett said.

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