Unified Government abandons The Woodlands

The Unified Government in Wyandotte County has thrown The Woodlands under the state’s gambling bus.

The city’s lobbying priorities for next year, recently and unanimously adopted by UG commissioners, include opposition to any rekindling of the statewide debate on casino gambling that some hope would lead to a re-opening of the pari-mutuel dog and horse racing track that closed in August.

The policy statement says in part:

“The Unified Government opposes any attempts by the 2009 Kansas Legislature to amend, alter or otherwise change the provisions of Senate Bill 66 which allows casino gaming. Attempts to change the law before approved casinos are built and operating presents a risk to the future of casino gaming.”

In other words, a bird in the hand -- the proposed and approved Hard Rock Hotel & Casino at Kansas Speedway -- beats two in the bush.

There is widespread fear that re-opening the casino debate in an effort to lower the state’s high tax on racetrack slots could trigger a wave of other amendments by gambling foes that might cripple or undo the state’s gambling law altogether.

But casino gambling in Kansas is almost undone anyway. Starting all over might not be such a bad idea.

The law approved in 2007 established a framework for four “state owned” destination resort casinos plus state-owned slot machines at Kansas’ three pari-mutuel tracks.

It hasn’t worked out that way, however. Increased casino competition in the region, economic recession, tight credit, and Kansas’ steep tax rates on gambling all have acted to winnow the list of live projects in Kansas from seven to just two casinos, in Wyandotte County and Dodge City.

Owners of all three tracks and the two successful casino bidders in the Wichita and southeast Kansas markets abandoned their plans, withdrew their bids and have run for economic cover.

State officials recently slashed the estimate of state gambling taxes in the first year from around $200 million to just $24 million _ and that’s only if the Hard Rock and Dodge City casinos open as expected sometime in the latter half of 2009.

Track owners had hoped to lobby state lawmakers in 2009 for a reduction in the mandatory 60 percent cut the state and others would skim off the top of gross gambling revenues generated at their so-called “racinos.”

But any debate over changing state gambling tax rates would open a door to other amendments or even a much-feared effort to repeal the measure altogether after its narrow passage in 2007.

So, the UG has decided one casino in the bag is a better bet than a long-shot gamble to have two in town.

“This will put us at odds with The Woodlands, which we clearly have supported all these years,” said UG spokesman Mike Taylor.

“But it’s too risky to be reopened,” he said of the Kansas Legislature’s contentious debate over gambling that began in the early 1990s. “It could abolish the whole gambling law,” he said.

“We’re disapppointed that that’s the way the UG feels about it,” said Woodlands General Manager Jayme LaRocca, one of about a dozen employees still on the track payroll.

“We’re still moving forward” with lobbying plans for 2009, he added, that is aimed at installing slots and reopening the track.

“We need it to reopen,” he said of the debate over gambling. “We have met with the horsemen and the dogmen in the state to come up with a policy we can all support.”

LaRocca said the increasing level of political speculation that influential elements of the Legislature’s leadership also do not want to reopen the debate next year is discouraging.

“We hope that doesn’t happen,” he said, “and that they see its an important issue to get the horse and greyhound industries back up and running in the state.”