Politics & Government

Senate advances bill to prevent votes on gambling in Sedgwick County until 2032

Patrons play slots at the Kansas Star casino.
Patrons play slots at the Kansas Star casino. File photo

Sedgwick County residents wouldn’t be able to vote on gambling again until 2032 under a bill approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

House Bill 2125 would prohibit ballot votes on a casino in south-central Kansas or slot machines at the Wichita Greyhound Park for 18 years.

The Senate vote was 28-12. The bill now goes to the House.

Supporters of the bill, including Senate President Susan Wagle, said the issue has already been settled by Sedgwick County voters. Opponents questioned why the state would prevent local voters from having a say for so long.

Voters decided against allowing slots at the greyhound park by less than 250 votes in August 2007. A separate vote to allow a casino in Sedgwick County failed with 56 percent of voters saying no.

The greyhound track closed; numerous efforts to allow another vote on slots at the track have failed to win legislative approval.

Glenn Thompson, the spokesman for Stand Up For Kansas, the anti-gambling group that backed the bill, said its purpose is to save time and money.

“The intent of it is to stop the waste of time of a possibility of another vote in Sedgwick County,” Thompson said. “A revote would be very, very expensive on the citizens.”

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said the majority of voters in her district voted in favor of adding slots to the greyhound park and this bill would rob them of their chance to vote on it again in the future.

She said allowing slot machines at the greyhound park would allow it to reopen and create 500 new jobs.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, noted the bill was originally written as a bill on real estate before senators replaced its content with the anti-gambling provisions.

She described herself as a firm opponent of gambling, but said she could not understand how the Senate could vote to prevent people from voting on an issue back home.

Dave Unruh, chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission, said in a phone interview that gambling measures are for the state to decide.

“We are not inclined to make an issue of it,” he said.

If the state permits a vote on slots at the dog track, the commission would go along, Unruh said. “Until they do that, most commissioners here say we’ve already had a vote.”

Thompson said he did not think the closeness of 2007’s vote should matter.

“Once the citizens voted on the matter, even if it was a one-vote difference, the citizens expected that they would not have to have that vote again. …When you have a referendum you don’t tell the citizens, if it’s a narrow vote we’re going to have a revote,” he said.

Thompson also criticized billionaire Phil Ruffin, the owner of the greyhound park, for seeking another vote on the topic.

Ruffin, Democrats respond

Democrats contend the bill is an attack on Ruffin because of his support for moderate Republicans and Democrats in previous elections. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, accused conservatives of targeting their opposition’s donors.

Ruffin said he did not take the bill personally. But he did say it was a bad idea.

“I hope the House strikes it down,” he said in a phone call. “The track would employ a lot of people.” He noted that the racetrack had to lay off about 400 employees when it closed and its business also supported dog breeders and other vendors.

Wagle did not comment on Hensley’s claim of retribution against donors to moderate Republicans. But in defending the legislation after the initial floor vote, she acknowledged that part of the bill’s intent was to curb Ruffin’s influence.

“The community who worked that issue very hard – they were very concerned about the impact it (gambling) would have on the community, they are asking for this bill. And the last vote cost them like a million and half dollars. They have to raise money,” Wagle said. “And the person, the individual who is seeking another vote, can independently finance that vote.”

Individuals and groups spent about $1.5 million trying to sway voters before the 2007 election. Ruffin spent $746,513 of his own money trying to get people to vote for gambling. No Casinos, the main opposition group, raised $669,648 in donations, including $100,000 each from Intrust Financial Corp. and Wichita hotelier Jack DeBoer.

Wagle also pointed to campaign contributions from Ruffin’s Kansas Wins PAC. “He spends a lot of money on influencing legislators,” she said.

“Thousands of dollars spent on each legislator to get them independently to get his vote for racetrack gaming, and so the community is feeling like they’re having a hard time raising the amount of funds they would need, when he is incredibly wealthy and works at buying individual votes as this record shows,” Wagle said.

Hensley said it was a hypocritical for Wagle to point to Ruffin’s resources as a justification for the bill, noting that she accepts political contributions from many independently wealthy donors. But those donors support her politics and Ruffin doesn’t, Hensley said. “That’s the difference.”

Wagle sent an e-mailed statement clarifying her position later Tuesday.

“This is not about campaign contributions to legislators. It’s about avoiding very costly elections when the public has already made its intent clear. Those of us who oppose gaming don’t have millions of dollars to fend off Mr. Ruffin every time he wants to push a ballot initiative.”

Ruffin was amused by the charge that he had bought influence. “If I had so much influence, that vote wouldn’t have passed,” he said with a laugh.

He acknowledged that he has pushed for another vote on slot machines, but said he did not understand why gambling opponents would criticize him personally.

“Why would they make it personal? I have no idea about that,” he said.

Contributing: Fred Mann of The Eagle

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