Racing bill slow getting out of gate
DENVER — Rep. Don Coram’s goal is to bring live horse racing to the Western Slope.
If that’s done by the owners of the state’s only existing racetrack on the Front Range or a new one from out of state, the Montrose Republican says he doesn’t care.
The point is to bring jobs and help revitalize the region’s economy, Coram said.
“I’m about job creation. I’m about economic development,” he said.
Coram’s bill to make that happen, however, faces an uncertain future before a skeptical House Finance Committee, which heard testimony on the bill earlier this month but hasn’t voted on it.
Its chairman, Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, said he isn’t sure whether he even will schedule a vote on Coram’s House Bill 1280 because it seems to have little support.
Like many lawmakers on the 13-member committee, DelGrosso said he has numerous concerns about the bill, which would allow up to two horse track owners to open up to two video-lottery-terminal casinos in the state, one of which would have to be on the Western Slope.
Under the bill, the state’s only existing track, Mile High Racing & Entertainment in Arapahoe County, qualifies to get a license to operate those casinos.
Coram, however, is confident someone else can get a license, too. He said he’s been in contact with New Mexico horse track owners who are interested in expanding to Colorado’s Western Slope.
“I’m not playing one against the other, but would I like to see two vying for this? Absolutely,” Coram said. “What I envision happening here is that a large facility be built with a racetrack, VLT, probably a very large convention center — a complete entertainment center.”
An official with the Mile High track, which already operates a parimutuel-betting house in Grand Junction, said his company intends to start live racing in the county if it wins a VLT-casino license.
Bill Ray, spokesman for the track and the lobbying effort to get Coram’s bill passed, said they hope to open a video lottery facility in the county, saying it will create about 400 jobs with an average pay of about $40,000 a year.
“A full-scale entertainment facility will create a myriad of good-paying full-time jobs,” Ray said. “Positions include servers and wait staff, maintenance and construction staff, and management and administrative personnel.”
Ray said the track’s owners already surveyed the county fairgrounds where the racing could take place, plus adjacent properties where such a facility might be located.
A large group of Grand Junction residents was flown to Denver to testify in favor of the bill. The group, made up of local business owners and residents, told the committee the county needs the jobs.
Jennifer Bailey, former president of the Western Slope Conservative Alliance, formed a new group, Grow Our Western Economy, in part to help get Coram’s bill passed.
Her group paid for a charter plane to get the Grand Junction witnesses to the Capitol.
“We are enthusiastic supporters of the entertainment venue, and we are going to continue to work to build support locally and elsewhere,” Bailey said, adding about 45 local businesses are helping her in that effort.
The bill limits who can get a video lottery license to horse track owners, but it doesn’t require that casino to be located on track grounds, a point that drew criticism by some committee members.
Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, said that’s only one of his problems with the bill.
“It expands a form of gambling in this state, and personally I’m not a big fan of gambling,” he said. “Beyond that, I think there are constitutional concerns. There’s a difference of opinion that it violates the Constitution. I think it does.”
Kefalas and some others on the committee said they don’t see much difference between video lottery machines, which would be overseen by the Colorado Lottery Commission, and regular slot machines operated in the state’s casinos, which are overseen by the Colorado Gaming Commission.
The 1990 constitutional amendment that approved limited-stakes gambling in the state’s three casino towns — Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek — allows slot machines, but says nothing about video lottery, Kefalas said.
Proponents of the measure told the committee the difference between lottery and casino gambling is chance versus skill, which had DelGrosso questioning how much skill was involved in pulling the arm on a slot machine.
$36 MILLION A YEAR
A fiscal impact analysis of the bill done by nonpartisan legislative staff says the bill could generate nearly $36 million a year in additional tax revenue.
Because the video-lottery-terminal machines would be overseen by the Colorado Lottery, some of that money would go to the state’s parks. The bill, however, calls for dedicating the bulk of that revenue to the state’s community colleges.
Despite the opposition, Coram said he’s not done trying to win votes on the committee.
He said he plans to offer another amendment to the bill to allow commissioners in the county where a video lottery casino would be located the option of requiring that license holder to offer live horse racing.
Coram had to amend the bill when it was heard in the House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee in early April. There, he changed the bill to bar a video lottery casino from being located within 100 miles of an existing casino.
Mile High’s horse track is about 60 miles east of the nearest casino in Blackhawk.
Coram also changed the bill to dedicate some of the tax revenue to tourism promotion at the behest of one ag committee member. To earn finance committee votes, he plans to amend it again to give some of the money to veterans programs.
Still, Kefalas, DelGrosso and other members of the finance committee said that may not be enough. Several members said they questioned why the bill allows a county commission to approve a track without a vote of the people in that county.
Under the bill, a commission can call for a public vote to allow a video lottery casino, but it isn’t required to do so.
“In 2003, the issue of expanding limited gaming, and we were looking at video lottery terminals specifically, was brought to the voters, and it was resoundingly defeated,” Kefalas said. “What I recall is that in Mesa County, 80 percent of folks didn’t want it. The proper way to do this is to go back to the voters.”
With only a week and a half left before the 2012 session ends, Coram said he still doesn’t know if the bill has a future, or whether the committee will bring it up again so he can offer his new amendments.
Ray blames the casino lobby for much of that.
“HB1280 would have created a substantial number of permanent jobs and would have been an economic shot in the arm on the Western Slope,” he said. “It is unfortunate that the casino special interests have seemingly derailed what would have helped a community with 20 percent unemployment by providing hundreds of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue and tourism.”