Kansas City Star; July 25, 2007
Gambling measures in Wyandotte County: Opposition scarce as vote looms on casino – The plans, which voters will consider Tuesday, have not stirred the usual passionate debate.
As Wyandotte County voters prepare for Tuesday’s election on whether to legalize casino gambling — a historic and possibly defining moment for the county — the opposition seems to have gone AWOL.
Casino debates usually follow a familiar route, with supporters championing gambling’s economic benefits and opponents decrying its social costs.
But in the weeks leading up to the election in Wyandotte County, that route has been largely one-way. If any resistance emerges, it will, by necessity, occur at the last minute.
“I’m going to be preaching against it,” the Rev. Lynn Lamberty, the senior pastor of University United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Kan., said last week. “But I’m not aware of any organized opposition. … I may hand-make a sign to put in my yard because no one has made any.”
Since April 11, when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ signature made Tuesday’s vote possible, no forums on gambling have been held. The editorial pages of local newspapers have received few letters opposing the measures. And although pro-gambling yard signs and billboards are plentiful, anti-gambling ones are a rare sight.
By contrast, supporters of the measures have organized Citizens for Gaming in Wyandotte County. The group doesn’t have to release a financial report until December, but it apparently has the resources to buy newspaper ads, lease four billboards, print 2,500 signs and operate a Web site.
Is this overkill in a community that in 1996 supported a nonbinding gambling referendum with 81 percent of the vote? Not to Cindy Cash, the treasurer for Citizens for Gaming and the president of the Kansas City Kansas Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We know that when people think it’s a done deal, sometimes they feel like they don’t need to vote,” Cash said. “That’s why we need to remind them that they need to vote if this is what they want for the county.”
Wyandotte County voters will answer two questions: whether to install slot machines at The Woodlands racetrack and whether to build a state-owned casino somewhere in the county.
If the measures pass, Wyandotte County could host a destination resort casino by 2010. The Woodlands hopes to get slot machines early next year.
Supporters of gambling in the county cite a host of reasons to support the measures, including jobs retained at The Woodlands, 2,200 permanent casino jobs, $8 million in annual property tax revenue and $7 million in annual gambling revenue.
Supporters note that a large portion of those revenues already passes from Kansas wallets to the metropolitan area’s Missouri casinos. Lamberty thinks that fact, coupled with the proliferation of casinos nationwide, could leave many opponents with the sense that gambling in Wyandotte County is inevitable.
“It’s not just a matter of putting your finger in the dike,” Lamberty said. “It’s a matter of finding a dike to put your finger in.”
With a larger platform, opponents might be able to get a message out such as the one that state Rep. Ben Hodge thinks voters should hear.
“The larger question is whether government should run gambling,” said Hodge, an Overland Park Republican. “I think you’re taking two industries, gambling and government, both prone to corruption, and you’re combining them. I think the results will be disastrous.”
Arguments such as that would stand a better chance of taking hold in Sedgwick County — where casinos are not as accessible as they are in Wyandotte County. The opposition to gambling is stronger in Sedgwick County in advance of an Aug. 7 election.
“I believe that the grassroots are really getting fired up,” said Donna Lippoldt of Wichita, the volunteer director of operations for No Casinos in Sedgwick County.
Lippoldt said her group has contacted about 500 churches, many of which are actively involved in the anti-gambling campaign. She said the group has bought 5,000 yard signs, and plans for broadcast ads are in the works.
“We feel it’s very possible that we will be able to defeat this,” Lippoldt said.
Another difference between Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties: demand.
Simply put, Wyandotte County has wanted a gambling referendum for years. Long before landing Kansas Speedway and Village West, officials believed that gambling revenues could rescue the county from a long economic funk. But nearly 15 years of lobbying fell on deaf ears. Topeka would not budge — until this year.
In Sedgwick County, the issue hardly registered. Unified Government spokesman Mike Taylor, a former lobbyist for the city of Wichita, said that, unlike Wyandotte County, Sedgwick County never felt the economic threat — and envy — of having a casino just across the county line.
“For the eight years I lobbied for Wichita, we never had one word about gaming in our legislative program,” Taylor said. “It just was never an issue that they wanted to push or talk about … Here it’s been part of the legislative platform for years.”
Taylor said that desire could translate into a large turnout. Advance voting numbers bear that out, with 2,754 advance ballots cast as of Thursday.
“People have wanted to vote on this question and have it mean something for such a long time,” he said.
On Tuesday, Wyandotte County will find out just how badly it has craved that vote.
“I think there’s pent-up demand,” he said.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The Kansas gambling legislation would allow the state to own and operate one casino in four areas if voters in each area approve: Wyandotte County, Crawford and Cherokee counties, Sedgwick and Sumner counties and Ford County. Pari-mutuel racetracks will be allowed to install at least 600 slot machines where approved.
Voters already have approved gambling facilities in Crawford, Sumner and Cherokee counties. Wyandotte and Ford counties will vote Tuesday. Sedgwick County will vote Aug. 7.
WHAT SUPPORTERS SAY:
Gambling would bring an estimated $8 million a year in property tax revenue and $7 million in local gambling revenues to Wyandotte County.
A casino would create an estimated 2,200 permanent jobs.
If slot machines are approved for The Woodlands, jobs would be retained at the financially struggling horse- and dog-racing track.
WHAT OPPONENTS SAY:
Gambling would lead to increased crime and addictive behavior and would disrupt families.
Economic benefits would be short-lived.
State-owned casinos would be prone to corruption.