Voters could decide on casino in Arapahoe County

DENVER - With a name like "Coloradans For Better Schools," the campaign that hauled boxes full of signed petition forms into the Secretary of State's office sounds like it's all about the children.

That impression belies a growing battle between companies that make money off of gambling in Colorado.

If 86,000 of the signatures are valid, voters will get to weigh in on an amendment to the state constitution that allows an Arapahoe County horseracing track to add a large-scale casino to its property, a first for the Denver metro area.

All but $100 of the $2.1 million funding the "yes" campaign come from the owners of the Arapahoe Park horseracing track.

Their ballot initiative would allow them to build a casino with table games and up to 2500, which is more one-armed bandits than you'll find in all of Central City's casinos combined and more than any single casino in Colorado has to offer.

Currently, Colorado only has legal gambling in the historic mining towns of Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek, which have pitched in $9.1 million to fight the measure. Indian casinos are partially regulated by the state.

Arapahoe Park's owners would have to pay a lump sum of $25 million to the state to start up its casino. That fee would also apply if anybody wanted to follow suit, one of several barriers to entry for any subsequent operations.

Similar operations would be allowed under the new law only in Mesa or Pueblo counties, but would need to be up and running as a horse racing facility for five years before being allowed to apply.

No existing businesses qualify, according to state documents.

State fiscal analysts are still working on the official estimate for tax revenue that would be generated by a casino at Arapahoe Park with a tax rate of 34 percent. The largest existing casinos pay 20 percent tax on their winnings from gamblers.

Supporters say the proposal will raise $100 million annually for schools, a less than 2 percent increase in the state's current spending level of $5.3 billion on K-12 education.

An easier way to think about that estimate is roughly $114 per student.

It's not enough to buy every kid an iPad, but at a school of a few hundred students it could pay for an extra staff member.

Opponents point out that voters said no last year to paying more income tax for schools, arguing the casino idea is an alternative that at least helps.

"It raises 10 percent… of what Amendment 66 was proposing to do," said Bob Hagedorn, a former Democratic state senator.

"It's a single company writing itself into the Colorado constitution to allow it to build a casino," said Michele Ames, spokesperson for Don't Turn Racetracks Into Casinos, the opposition campaign. "I can't imagine anybody could see it any other way."

Ames predicts this effort will lose if it goes to the ballot, just like a similar question did in 2003.

Amendment 33 was crushed on the 2003 ballot by a margin of 81 – 19, but the tax money in that year's proposal would have funded tourism and parks, not schools.

Borrowing a page from the playbook of marijuana supporters, the racetrack owners are wagering they can do a better job tugging at voters' heartstrings for education funding this time around.

"It doesn't matter what they say they're going to fund: schools or fluffy kittens. Coloradans are going to see it for the bad deal it is," Ames said.

"They're not thrilled there's going to be competition for them, but competition is healthy," said former Republican state Rep. Vicki Armstrong, another supporter of the ballot measure.

If enough of the 136,000 signatures in turned in by supporters Monday are valid, the ballot question is a competition that's going to get a lot louder soon.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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