There’s going to be a gambling debate

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Des Moines) is the guest on this weekend’s edition of “Iowa Press” and during this morning’s taping of the program, he discussed (in detail) the gambling package legislators are crafting.

It does NOT include the proposal to allow gambling machines in bars.  Instead, it deals with allowing larger poker tournaments in the state-licensed casinos and it would allow the casinos to pay a fee to the state in order to avoid the every-eight-year county-wide referendums on gambling in a county which has a casino.

I’ll be back with more details later.  UPDATE: Here’s the Radio Iowa story on this topic. 

Here’s what McCarthy had to say about gambling on the show:

“There’s been some discussion over the last few months on whether there should be some type of Keno-type video gaming machines in bars which would be competition with existing facilities.  That proposal appears to be dead at this point and will not move forward,” McCarthy said when first asked about gambling.

“There is an increasing liklihood I’d say after discussions this last week with Senator Gronstal and Speaker Murphy and Speaker Murphy and our (House) State (Government) Committee chair Mary Mascher, Representative Doug Struyk from the Republican Party, Representative Brian Quirk, the head of gaming and licensing, and representatives of the 17 licensed casinos, it looks like we will very likely have a gaming debate this year — a fairly limited gaming debate, hopefully, but it looks like we wil have a gaming debate.”

Mike Glover of the AP asked; “And what will that be?”

“What we’re looking at right now is to try to find ways that it would be win-win for these institutions, for their communities and for the state by providing some additional, limited expansion of gaming in non-contiguous areas.  Now, let me explain what that means.  Right now in our 17 casinos, you’re only allowed to game on the gaming floor and in areas immediately contiguous.  Well, there’s really no areas immediately contiguous.  All these casinos have convention areas, ballrooms, places where they have boxing tournaments or whatever it is and we’d be looking at some sort of non-electronic form of gaming, so poker-type games, in some of those non-contiguous areas under the same existing rules and regulations that we have right now in Iowa.

“That would be a win-win because you’d have these gaming institutions being able to make a little bit more money.  You’d have to, depending on each casino, you’d have a little different business model.  Harrah’s, for example, participates in the National Poker Championships that you watch on TV. They’d be able to, because of their model, be able to draw from South Dakota and Nebraska and maybe have some fairly large tournaments there.

“The non-profits win ’cause they get more money back to the non-profits in their community and the state would be able to tax that at a certain level, yet to be determined, to get more gaming revenue that way.

“Also a big issue that would be tagged onto this gaming debate would be the repeal of the referendum requirement.  Right now, all 17 Iowa casinos have on the ballot for this November a referendum that would decide whether the voters want that casino to continue or not. 

“This discussion has been around for a couple of years. What we would likely do is to say for casinos that have had two successful elections already over an eight year period — because they’re eight years apart, if you are stabilized in your community and it looks like they want you there — remove that referendum requirement this November and instead allow the voters a reverse-referendum possibility in the future. If a community wants to get rid of gaming in their county, they’d be able to get some signatures and have a reverse referendum to remove that in future, so you’d still have the ability to have the voters have a say in the future, but you’d remove that requirement.

“That’s also additional potential revenue for us at the state because what we probably will do is have some sort of opt-in fee that casinos would pay and that would be a win-win scenario as well because many casinos are banking significant amounts of money preparing for this public relations campaign this coming fall and so if a casino has, let’s say, banked a million dollars for a p-r campaign, if their fee’s a half million to opt-in, the state gets a half million dollars from that casino in terms of the opt-in fee, they save money in their public relations campaign and have more stability. 

“We have more stability as a state.  We are bonding for infrastructing and flood recovery right now, tied to gaming dollars coming into the state. So trying to find ways, no new competition for these existing facilities, limited expansion of what they’re already allowed to do in existing facilities, but ways to generate some new revenue for the state.”

I asked the following question:  “You’ve described it as win-win.  Does that mean you have the votes to pass it in the Iowa House and Senate?”

“I don’t know,” McCarthy replied.  “But I do know that right now, in terms of the leadership, we seem to be at least preliminarily on board and we are beginning discussions with the key players and they seem to be on board and as I mentioned, I reached out to Representative Doug Struyk and I’ve talked to other members on the Republican side who appear to be willing to work with this and so all gaming debates have a bipartisan component. This will not be a partisan component, but this is going to be much more limited than what we’ve had in the past. This is not new gaming.”

Glover interjected: “This sounds like this is a long way down the road, Representative McCarthy.”

“We hope to have a proposed bill within the next two weeks and this probably would be something that would maybe be a late February, early March debate and we hope to have bipartisan support for it and because it’s so limited and the budget situation is what it is, I think there’s a reasonable likelihood that we could pass something in this regard.”

BTW:  the Representative Doug Struyk McCarthy mentioned twice is from Council Bluffs, where there are three state-licensed casinos on the Iowa side of the Missouri river bank.  McCarthy is from Polk County, home to the Prairie Meadows Race Track & Casino in Altoona.  Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal is a Democrat from Council Bluffs.  House Speaker Pat Murphy is a Democrat from Dubuque where there are two state-licensed casino on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River bank.

After the show’s taping, McCarthy told a group of reporters who’d gathered that the casinos have agreed that these poker tournaments which may be staged in a ballroom in the casino conference center will remain NON-SMOKING AREAS.   As you may recall, the statewide smoking ban does not apply to the casino “gaming floors” where the slot machines and black jack tables are located (an exemption for which the casinos lobbied heavily).  The rest of the casino property, though is to be non-smoking.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.