A bill supporters say will revive Kansas’ all-but-dead racing industry with racetrack slot machines cleared a Senate committee Wednesday.
The measure is designed to help bring slots to tracks in Kansas City, Kan., and Frontenac, but would also make it easier for a developer to build a casino in southeast Kansas. The bill was approved 5-4 by the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, forwarding it to the full Senate.
Supporters said the bill would generate revenue for the state, but some opponents said the bill ignores national trends working against the racing industry’s survival. Betting at Kansas tracks was $273 million in 1990 but dropped to less than $80 million by 2006. Last year, with no major tracks open, the figure was less than $500,000, according to the state.
“Do we bail out a failing typewriter company by giving them slots?” said former state Rep. Dave Heinemann, a lobbyist for the antigambling group Stand Up for Kansas.
The bill would allow up to 1,200 slots at each of two closed tracks: the Camptown Greyhound Park in Frontenac, just outside Pittsburg, and the Woodlands dog and horse tracks in Kansas City.
The committee took out a provision that would have allowed slot machines at Wichita Greyhound Park, which was shut down after voters refused to allow slots in Sedgwick County in 2007. But the issue continues to divide the community and its legislator, and committee members said it would be a key issue for the Senate.
The debate also is complicated by the Kansas Lottery’s efforts to build casinos in Kansas City and south of Wichita. Prospective developers oppose the bill.
Chisholm Creek, the partnership seeking state approval for a $225 million casino south of Wichita, told senators it would be forced to walk away from the venture if slots were permitted at the Wichita dog track. Its project is the only casino the lottery is pursuing for the area, and the developers already were worried about competition from a proposed tribal casino near Wichita.
“It would discourage anybody from building a casino,” said John Frieden, a Topeka attorney representing Chisholm Creek.
A 2007 state law authorized slots at the Kansas City, Wichita and Frontenac tracks. It also permitted the lottery to establish four casinos, one each in the Dodge City, Kansas City and Wichita areas and one in either Cherokee or Crawford county in southeast Kansas.
The Dodge City casino opened in December, but the lottery has no viable casino proposals for southeast Kansas. State regulators approved a $521 million casino-and-hotel complex overlooking Kansas Speedway, the NASCAR track in Kansas City, Kan. It’s set to open in 2012.
The bill would rewrite the 2007 gambling law, which hasn’t lived up to its promise of generating revenues for the state.
The law requires potential developers of the southeast Kansas casino to invest $225 million, but the bill would drop that to $100 million. Legislators and others say the current threshold is too high and scares off potential developers.
Track owners have argued slots wouldn’t be profitable for them because the law caps their share of the revenues at 40 percent. The bill would raise the cap to 58 percent, taking the difference from the state’s share.
Track owners say the changes are needed to save the industry, which has seen business dwindle during the past two decades as gambling proliferated elsewhere. Doug Lawrence, a Kansas Greyhound Association lobbyist, said animal breeders and owners already are moving to other states and, without slots, track owners may be forced to consider converting their properties to other uses.
“Ultimately, we’re just at a crossroads,” he said.