October 26, 2014

Lawmakers seek to help SE Kan. attract gambling

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Two southeast Kansas legislators are pushing a plan for attracting a casino and racetrack slot machines to the area, but the state Senate's majority leader said Dec. 23 that he doubts their bill will pass.

State Reps. Bob Grant, of Cherokee, and Doug Gatewood, of Columbus, both Democrats, want to rewrite a 2007 law allowing the Kansas Lottery to contract with private developers to build and operate one casino in each of four areas, including southeast Kansas. The same law allows slots at three shuttered race tracks, including Camptown Greyho und Park, north of Pittsburg.

Many state and industry officials contend the conditions set by the law are too stringent for southeast Kansas. The lottery has no proposals for a casino there, even as projects have moved forward in the other three areas. Track owners and the lottery have been unable to agree on slots contracts.

Grant and Gatewood's bill is targeted at southeast Kansas, a change from past proposals to rewrite the law. Their measure would decrease the required investment for a casino there from $225 million to $100 million and boost the share of slots revenues set aside for Camptown's owner.

For years, southeast Kansas officials were among the most ardent supporters of legalized gambling, seeing it as economic development. They've been frustrated that their area hasn't yet benefited from the casino and slots law.

Grant said he and Gatewood drafted a narrow bill to avoid creating too much opposition from legislators opposed to legalized gambling – some of whom would like to repeal the 2007 law. But Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, questioned whether the approach will work.

"If all the legislation is going to do is focus on one little area of the state, I don't see it getting enough support to pass one house, let alone, two," said Emler, who said he'd vote against a narrow measure.

Penn National Gaming Inc., of Wyomissing, Pa., received permission from a state review board in May 2008 to build and operate a casino in the southeast corner of Cherokee County, along the Oklahoma border. But four months later, Penn dropped its plans, after the Quapaw tribe opened a casino just across the state line.

The lottery hasn't received any proposals for southeast Kansas since, and its officials believe developers are scared off by the required $225 million investment.

Meanwhile, a casino in Dodge City opened a year ago, and one is under construction at Kansas Speedway, the NASCAR track in Kansas City, Kan. Earlier this month, the state review board approved a plan for a casino in Mulvane, south of Wichita.

"We voted to have gaming in southeast Kansas. Why can't we get it?" Grant said during an interview. "It seems like we've been the unwanted stepchild down here."

The law's provisions on slots were designed to revive Camptown, shuttered since 2000; Wichita Greyhound Park, which closed in 2007, and The Woodlands dog and horse racing park in Kansas City, Kan., which closed in 2008.

But the law caps owners' share of the slots revenues at 40 percent, with the state guaranteed at least 40 percent. The rest is split among various groups, including local governments and horse and dog owners.

Track owners have said with the onset of the Great Recession, their share isn't big enough to make slots profitable. Grant and Gatewood's bill would raise the cap on their share to 58 percent – for Camptown only.

Last year, a bill making the same change for all three tracks faced strong opposition from developers of the Kansas City, Kan., casino and the area's legislators, who didn't want to hurt the casino project.

"This bill is narrowly written to cover the southeast Kansas gaming zone," Grant said. "I'm hoping to keep this clean."

Some legislators also have been reluctant to reopen the gambling debate because they fear it will become messy and contentious – and, perhaps inspire proposals to ratchet back on legalized gambling or repeal the 2007 law altogether. The latter is a greater possibility in the House, where this year's elections left the GOP with a larger ma jority and more conservatives.

"I suspect that gaming is just not an issue that the Senate is going to be overly excited about dealing with," Embler said.

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The gambling bill is prefiled HB 2002, to be introduced when legislators convene their annual session Jan. 10.

Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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