Kansas racing on its last leg

Dog, horse tracks nationwide struggle without other gambling

? When Kansas voters approved wagering on horse and dog tracks in 1986, they were told it would be a big moneymaker for the state economy.

Twenty years later, the amount of money bet on races has fallen to the point that the tracks don’t even generate enough in wagering taxes to cover the cost of the state to regulate them.

“Things have completely flipped in Kansas,” said Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission executive director Stephen Martino.

The Racing and Gaming Commission’s budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, is projected to be approximately $1 million short, which will require some kind of bailout.

In 1990 in Kansas, the handle – the amount wagered – was $273.4 million. Since then the handle has plummeted, setting record lows year after year to $79.7 million last year.

“It’s a grim situation,” Martino said.

Taxes from live and simulcast pari-mutuel wagering are expected to drop nearly 45 percent, from $2.2 million in fiscal year 2006 to $1.7 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has proposed using approximately $700,000 in Kansas Lottery funds that normally go to economic development projects to help make up the agency’s shortfall.

Slots needed?

Martino said it is part of a national trend. “Tracks that have additional gaming, such as slots, do well, and those that don’t are doing poorly,” he said.

But attempts to allow casino-style games at the state’s two major tracks – The Woodlands in Kansas City, Kan., and Wichita Greyhound Park – have repeatedly failed in the Kansas Legislature.

Despite talk in the Legislature again this year to revive efforts to put slots at the tracks, Glenn Thompson, executive director of the anti-gambling group Stand Up for Kansas, predicted no change.

“There’s just as much opposition to casinos this year as there has ever been,” he said.

Gambling competition

Jim Gartland, a spokesman for The Woodlands, said riverboat casinos right across the river in Missouri, Indian casinos in northeast Kansas and the Kansas Lottery have taken a huge bite out of the gambling dollar.

“In this day and age of instant gratification, doing mindless gambling is easier than studying a racing program,” Gartland said.

The lottery is expected to pump $67 million into the state budget this year, and lawmakers appear ready to drop a requirement that the lottery be reauthorized every five years.

Gartland said if the Legislature approved slots at the tracks it would help.

“We are kind of surrounded by casinos,” he said.

The Legislature considered a bill last year that would have allowed state-run, resort-type casinos in Kansas City, Kan., and southeast Kansas and also 5,000 slot machines at pari-mutuel race tracks.

That bill, which failed in the Senate, would have raised about $150 million a year for the state, according to its supporters.

Gartland declined to speculate on how long the tracks can go on. In 2000, a track in Frontenac shut down.

But Thompson said the tracks have for years said they may go under, but they continue on.

Accompanying the decrease in wagering, fewer people also are visiting the tracks.

Attendance at The Woodlands fell from 361,611 in 2004 to 328,109 in 2005, according to the Racing Commission’s last annual report. And Wichita Greyhound’s attendance dropped from 172,209 in 2004 to 157,644 in 2005, the report said.