A bill in the Kansas House could let Sedgwick County voters once again vote on whether to allow slot machines at the shuttered Wichita Greyhound Park.
It’s another effort to reopen the track near Park City, which owner Phil Ruffin closed after voters narrowly rejected slot machines in the county in 2007.
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Under HB 2173, residents would have to gather at least 5,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The ballot question would read: “Shall the operation of electronic gaming machines at the Wichita Greyhound Park by the Kansas lottery be permitted in Sedgwick County?”
Supporters say racing would benefit the area and that residents should have a chance to decide on the issue again.
State law and gambling contracts were crafted with the intent that there wouldn’t be other gaming facilities with slot machines in the state until at least 2032.
The Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane paid a privilege fee to be the sole gaming facility in the south-central Kansas gaming zone, made up of Sedgwick and Sumner counties.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued an opinion last spring that legislation allowing Sedgwick County residents to vote again on slots at the park would breach the Kansas Lottery’s contract with Kansas Star Casino.
Opponents say breaking the contract would open the floodgates for expensive lawsuits.
‘What customers demand’
Rep. Larry Hibbard, R-Toronto, said the bill’s main goal is to reopen several closed horse and dog tracks and create numerous jobs in the state.
“We will be providing much needed revenue to the state treasury,” Hibbard said.
Art Hall of the Greater Kansas Racing Alliance said it wouldn’t take any economic development incentives to restore racetracks. But he said slots are needed to make the tracks profitable.
“Technology and time have changed the fundamental economics of … racing,” he said. “It’s got to be supplemented by the revenue streams from electronic gaming machines. The mix of entertainment is what customers demand.”
Scott Beeler, an attorney for the Greater Kansas Racing Alliance, said the Legislature should not feel bound by Schmidt’s opinion last year.
“They are opinions and they are not the law of the state,” he said. “The Legislature has every right to change that law or to clarify that law.”
Beeler said existing casinos opposed to the legislation are simply protecting their own interests.
“This is like a young kid protecting the sandbox,” Beeler said. “The … people who are raking in the money don’t want any competition.”
Kevin Fowler, an attorney representing the Kansas Star Casino and two other casinos in the state, accused racing interests of trying to “change the terms of the bargain” struck in 2007.
“It (HB 2173) is designed to allow them to reopen closed facilities. … That’s going to result in protracted litigation that could potentially expose the state to hundreds of millions of dollars in liability,” he said.
Whitney Damron, representing Kansas Entertainment, said “Phil Ruffin missed a layup” in the 2007 vote.
“They thought the vote in Sedgwick County was going to be a lock, and they lost it,” Damron said. “There’s nothing in the act that says you get a redo.
“I encourage you to read that attorney general opinion,” he said. “It’s very clear about what the potential impact is.”
Animal-rights supporters also testified against the bill, saying greyhound racing is cruel to the dogs.
“HB 2173 is designed to bring back greyhound racing through slot subsidies,” said Midge Grinstead, a state director of the Humane Society of the U.S. “Greyhound racing is an inhumane activity that’s largely been rejected.”
‘Democracy in action’
The bill has gotten the attention of Wichita policymakers.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell submitted written testimony in support of “the right of our citizens to vote on this matter.”
“While voters decided a similar issue in 2007, much time has now elapsed and much has changed in our community,” Longwell wrote. “Should there be enough interest registered by petition for voters to decide this matter, we believe the voters should be heard from directly.”
Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis wrote that reopening the greyhound park would stimulate the economy in northern Sedgwick County.
“Additional restaurants and hotels will be needed to service the visitors that would be coming to the area,” Dennis wrote. “This will further encourage the growth of the area and the county.”
Chad Stafford, chairman of the Wichita Independent Business Association Board, said the bill and process to put the question on the ballot “is truly democracy in action.”