Politics & Government

House panel barely approves changes to gaming, racing law

The Wichita Greyhound Park has been closed since 2007.
The Wichita Greyhound Park has been closed since 2007. File photo

A Kansas House committee narrowly gave the green light to a proposal that would allow a revote on slot machines in Sedgwick County.

Supporters of HB 2173 said it would help revive the dormant racing industry in south-central Kansas and other parts of the state. Opponents worried existing casinos could launch a legal war against the state for breach of contract.

The bill would allow Sedgwick County residents to gather at least 5,000 signatures for another vote to allow slot machines at the Wichita Greyhound Park near Park City. The track, owned by Phil Ruffin, closed in 2007 shortly after voters rejected placing slots in the county.

The bill passed on a 11-10 vote in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee with one member abstaining.

“We have a real opportunity here to create some jobs in Kansas (and) help our horse and dog industry,” said Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. “We lose a lot of people across state lines when they go to Oklahoma, when they go to Missouri to game.”

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, said they should welcome “an increase in investment in our state” by those who want to reopen shuttered tracks in Kansas.

“It’s a pathway for private investment. They are not asking for state funds…or incentives to get into this business,” he said. “They are taking a huge risk. They’re willing to pay for that risk. I think we should let them have that privelege.”

State law and gambling contracts were crafted about a decade ago with the intent that there wouldn’t be other gaming facilities with slot machines in Kansas 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. Three gaming facility managers in three other gaming zones across the state also paid privilege fees.

“Conducting a revote to allow Wichita Greyhound Park to reopen with electronic gaming machines may be viewed as an expansion of gaming that is prohibited,” according to a state budget office report on the bill.

If the bill violates a provision of previous law, the state would be required to pay back privilege fees to the casinos plus interest. The state says it’s received $61 million in privilege fees and that the interest payments could be at least $50.9 million.

Lawmakers worried about the legal risks pointed to an Attorney General’s opinion that said a bill last year to allow Sedgwick County residents to vote on slots at the park would breach the Kansas Lottery’s contract with Kansas Star Casino.

“I’m concerned about this huge liability that we’re opened up to,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita. “We care about the people of Kansas. We don’t want to put them into a bind with a bill that may put them on the book for $110 million or even more for damages.”

Others raised moral concerns about the expansion of gambling in Kansas.

“I’m concerned about the social costs,” said Rep. Chuck Weber, R-Wichita. “I don’t think we can quantify that. We just know it’s not positive.”

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, abstained on the final vote. He said lawmakers should wait for more clarity from the attorney general’s office.

“I’m being asked to vote on a bill that may obligate my voters, my constituents with a $100 million fiscal note and I have not had counsel from my attorney,” Whitmer said. “That’s the attorney general. He is our attorney.”

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