Casino income may help universities

Senate leader says chances for gambling expansion could improve in Legislature

? They’ve tried slots for tots and busted.

But a key state senator said Friday that expansion of casino gambling to pay for a backlog of repairs at regents universities might hit the jackpot.

“In terms of how we spend the money, there is no better purpose than to help the regents with their deferred maintenance problems,” said Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka.

The six public universities have said they need $727 million to repair and maintain their facilities, including $285 million at Kansas University and KU Medical Center.

Last year, the Kansas Board of Regents proposed a tax increase to address the problem, but that went nowhere in the Legislature.

In Kansas, there are four American Indian-operated casinos, from which state government receives no compensation.

Expansion of casino gambling is a perennial issue before the Legislature but has so far failed to advance, including proposals tied to raising funds for public schools and reducing property taxes.

But Hensley said gambling’s chances may improve in the 2007 legislative session, which starts Jan. 8, because of House elections where a number of seats changed hands in favor of candidates who support expanded gambling.

“Given the significance of the issue during the campaigns, it has opened up some eyes on the House and Senate side,” he said.

Hensley said his proposal would be similar to one debated last year that would have allowed resort-type casinos in several areas and slot machines at pari-mutuel tracks.

That measure would have raised approximately $150 million per year for the state budget, according to estimates.

Hensley would dedicate gambling revenues to repairs at the universities, community colleges and vocational-technical schools. After four or five years, the state could reassess where to dedicate the funds, he said.

Glenn Thompson of Wichita, executive director of the anti-gambling group Stand Up for Kansas, said he remained optimistic that the Legislature would reject casino bills because of the adverse economic and social effects of more gambling.

Earmarking the proposed funds for the universities, he said, “is typical of what casino proponents do every year; they jump on whatever horse is popular that year.”

Kip Peterson, a spokesman for the regents, said the board appreciated Hensley’s “recognition of this important issues.”

He added, “In the upcoming legislative session, we look forward to working with the Legislature and the governor to explore all funding options to address this growing and dangerous problem.”