Renewed casinos effort tied to schools
Casino-style gambling could come to Mesa County whether residents here want it or not.
That could happen if Colorado voters approve one of four proposed ballot questions that either would allow gambling like the state already has in the three casino towns or through video lottery terminals that are virtually identical to slot machines.
The four proposed measures filed with the state over the past month, which are awaiting approval from the State Titling Board that reviews citizens’ initiatives, are being pushed by the same horse track owners that have tried the same thing several times before.
In the most recent effort two years ago, the owners of Arapahoe Park, the only horse racing track in the state, tried to get the Colorado Legislature to approve gambling at its facility in Aurora and at parimutuel betting establishments it operates in Mesa and Pueblo counties.
But this time, the group is taking a page from the folks who helped legalize marijuana in the state to help get the idea passed.
The measures would dedicate as much as 37 percent of the company’s proceeds from casinos toward K-12 education. (Amendment 64, which legalized pot in Colorado, earmarks $40 million a year for school construction.)
Monica McCafferty, spokeswoman for the issue committee that expects to campaign for the measure this fall, Coloradans for Better Schools, said the measure is for the kids.
“Looking at really who’s going to benefit, it’s really the school system,” she said. “As the ballot language suggests, it is very specific so that we’re looking at expanding gaming in areas where wagering on horse races has existed in the past and there’s that historical footprint of limited horse wagering. It’s a very responsible measure.”
McCafferty said her issue committee estimates that the Arapahoe Park track could generate as much as $100 million a year for education, adding that facilities in Mesa and Pueblo counties aren’t expected to reach that high but would generate even more money for public schools.
Like House Bill 1280 that died in a Colorado House committee two years ago after The Daily Sentinel published a story showing that it was specialty legislation, which is illegal, the effort is being pushed by the Aurora track and its Rhode Island owners, Twin Rivers Worldwide Holdings Inc.
That is the same company under a different name that pushed Initiative 33 in 2003, which would have allowed video lottery casinos at horse and dog racing tracks in the state.
Nearly 81 percent of Coloradans rejected that measure. In Mesa County, 78 percent of voters likewise said no to the idea.
De Beque effort
Unlike the 1990 constitutional amendment that allowed for limited-stakes gambling in Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City, none of the four proposals calls for local approval of casinos after surviving a statewide vote.
That means voters elsewhere in the state will decide if Mesa County is to have casinos.
That’s a bone of contention for some folks in De Beque, who are hoping to get a measure of their own onto the fall ballot to allow them to join the mountain gambling towns and offer casino games, said Ryan Rose, the De Beque firefighter who also is co-chairman of a group to bring casino gambling to town.
Rose said his group was approached by the backers of the proposed ballot measures to support their effort but turned them down.
That happened because they could offer no guarantee a casino would be located in De Beque should it pass. As drafted, the proposals would be limited to companies that operate a horse racing track or a have a license to operate an off-track betting establishment. The only place that allows that in Mesa County is Bank 8 Billiards & The 8 Track, 2460 Patterson Road, which is operated by the same people who own Arapahoe Park.
Additionally, Rose is concerned that having two gambling measures on the ballot would be too much for voters to swallow, resulting in a defeat of both.
“It’s going to step on our toes and make it harder for us,” Rose said. “We’re not trying to change where the money goes, so as far as (where) we’re at, we’re not benefiting a single company. We’re benefiting the entire state of Colorado.”
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said she doesn’t believe that county residents will like the idea of the rest of the state deciding for the county whether casino gambling should be allowed here.
While she said she’s happy to hear that the De Beque measure, which has yet to be introduced into the Colorado Legislature, will include a local vote, she would prefer it be a countywide vote, rather than just one for De Beque residents.
Pugliese said the horse track effort is wrong not to include a local vote on top of a statewide one.
“I think the voters should have the right to decide for themselves,” she said.
Under the four proposed ballot measures, the only control local governments would have over the casinos would be in whether to license them, and through zoning issues related to any expansion.
The measures would allow the casinos to have as many as 2,500 slot machines or video lottery terminals.
Lois Rice, executive director of the Colorado Gaming Association, a group that represents the casinos in the state, said that’s an unprecedented number of machines. The largest casino in the state, Ameristar Casino Resort in Black Hawk, only has about 1,500 slot machines, she said.
The measures also would require the would-be casinos to pay a one-time fee of $10 million to the local community they are in, and then pay 2 percent of their proceeds to the local government each year. That would come on top of any sales and property taxes the casinos would pay.
Rice, however, said the money the proposed new casinos would generate for schools would only cut into the money existing casinos already collect.
Under the original 1990 law that created them, gambling taxes from those casinos go into the state’s general fund, which could pay for any state program, but 28 percent goes to fund historical projects, 12 percent to the counties that have the casinos and 10 percent to the casino cities in those counties.
In 2008, voters approved Amendment 50 expanding hours of operation and what games those casinos could offer, and earmarked some revenues from that increase to community colleges.
“Because there has been such a big proliferation of gaming, states are just becoming saturated with the amount of gaming options that are available, and there’s just a finite number of gamblers in any state,” Rice said. “So we don’t see that these initiatives are going to create a new market for gambling. It’s just going to take money away from the three towns that already have gaming.”