Committee sends gambling bill to Senate for debate

? A day after one Senate panel endorsed a school finance package, another committee advanced a gambling bill Tuesday that leaders hope will cover the bulging education price tag.

The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee voted 4-3 to advance the casino and slot machine proposal, without a recommendation on whether it should be passed. Senators are expected to debate the issue later this week, but it’s anyone’s guess whether supporters can generate the 21 votes needed for passage.

“It’s going to be an extremely close vote,” said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. “Right now, I think we have somewhere between 20 and 21 votes.”

Senators haven’t passed a gambling bill in more than a decade, although the issue has been debated repeatedly. Committee Chairman Pete Brungardt said he was “quietly confident” it will pass this year.

“I feel good about it. The only vote that counts is the final one, and we should know by the end of the week,” said Brungardt, R-Salina.

But the gambling bill advanced only after Sen. Roger Reitz, an opponent of the proposal, declined to vote. That avoided what would have been a tie vote, which would have kept the measure bottled up.

Reitz said the rising costs of meeting Kansas Supreme Court and federal education mandates meant that gambling was just the beginning of a bad trend for Kansas.

“With No Child Left Behind, we’re going to have gambling and taxes in a big way,” said Reitz, R-Manhattan. “That dog doesn’t hunt with me.”

But supporters like Morris and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Kansans already gamble out-of-state or at Indian casinos, meaning the state experiences gambling’s pain without any revenue gain.

“We are shipping to other states – voluntarily – a large amount of money that could stay within Kansas,” Sebelius said during a news conference. “I also think we’re passing up opportunities to, frankly, expand our economy.”

Senate leaders see expanded gambling as a way to generate revenue to help pay for a plan to spend an additional $660 million over three years on education to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate.

But while the two issues are tied, Morris said he wants to pass a three-year schools plan even if a gambling bill fails.

“If we don’t have gaming for that third year, we’ll probably have to have taxes of some kind to fill the gap,” Morris said. “But my anticipation is that we don’t have a choice. We need to go ahead and pass that three-year plan and we’ll be obligated to find a way to pay for it.”

The Senate Education Committee endorsed the school finance bill Monday, and it is expected to be debated next week.

The gambling bill would generate about $152 million in the coming year, of which 25 percent would be returned to local governments for property tax relief.

Annual revenues are expected to jump to $200 million with the opening of casinos in Wyandotte County and southeast Kansas.

The measure also calls for 5,000 slot machines to be divided among pari-mutuel horse and dog tracks in Frontenac, Kansas City, Wichita and Dodge City, if that town constructs a track. The committee amended the bill to reduce the number from 7,000.

There also have been proposals to build casinos in Wichita, elsewhere in south-central Kansas and in Junction City.

But Senate leaders wanted to limit the number of potential casinos and slot machines, fearing a wider expansion of gambling would take away support for the bill.

“We’ve put together about as good a proposal as you’ll ever see,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “It’d be great if Geary County could be part of the bill, but it’s just a matter of practical politics.”

The casinos would be owned by the state but operated by a management company paying a $35 million upfront licensing fee. The tracks would pay $15,000 per slot upfront, but the state would subtract that amount over five years from what the tracks owe the state.

The measure includes a moratorium on additional slot machines or casinos for five years. It dedicates 75 percent of the state’s share of the new revenue to public schools, and the rest would help reduce property taxes in cities and counties. Counties with community colleges would receive extra.

“The assumption is we’re making it a better bill in general and for some certain senators,” Brungardt said.

But Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer’s comments reflect opposition to more education spending and expanding gambling. He is a member of the committees that advanced both the spending and gambling bills.

“I think it’s sad,” said Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, lamenting how far gambling debates have progressed since 2000. “After six years, by gosh, we may get it through.

“It’s slots for tots.”