Jerry Kopel

KOPEL: HANDFUL OF VOTERS IN CASINO TOWNS WOULD RULE

Amendment 50 would cripple casino oversight

Are you ready to read this headline next March? “Black Hawk votes 51 to 49 to raise casino bets to $100.”

That’s not 51 percent. That’s 51 voters.

The clerk and recorder staff in Gilpin County told me in mid-September that there are 100 active voters in Black Hawk. “Active” refers to residents who voted in the last general election or who have since registered to vote.

What if the Black Hawk vote totaled 200? Still not comfortable? Then you should vote “no” on Amendment 50 in November.

If Amendment 50 passes, each casino town will act separately when it comes to raising casino limits. Central City has 514 residents and 405 active voters. Cripple Creek has 1,065 residents and 514 active voters. Black Hawk has 232 residents and 100 active voters.

Information on population came from the Internet. Staff members in the Gilpin and Teller county clerk offices provided the number of active voters: 1,019. The 2007 population estimate for Colorado is 4,861,515.

If Amendment 50 passes, oversight of Colorado’s casino industry will be taken away from voters and the Colorado Department of Revenue’s gaming commission and handed over to casino operators. The casino operators would then be able to pressure casino employees to vote “the casino way” and bypass experienced state employees working for the gaming commission.

They can do this in two of the three towns because Black Hawk and Central City are now, unfortunately, company towns. The casino employees, their families and others whose business is directly or indirectly affected by the casinos constitute the majority of voters and will make the decisions under Amendment 50 in those two towns.

Colorado presently puts casino regulation under a gaming commission responsible to the governor and to the statewide voters. Amendment 50 changes this. How?

The small number of potential voters who have addresses within the three casino towns can “revise limits on gaming that apply to licensees in their city’s gaming district to EXTEND:”

(1) hours of limited gaming operations (2) approved games to include roulette or craps, or both, or (3) single bets up to $100.

In the Oxford Illustrated and the Concise English Dictionaries “extend” means to enlarge, to make larger in scope, to expand.

Example: A town votes to extend the hours of operation to 24 hours. Then the residents find it too disturbing. Under Amendment 50, that town’s voters cannot reduce the number of hours. Neither can the gaming commission nor the Legislature, without putting the issue on a future statewide ballot. Of course, a casino can ignore the higher limit and stay open fewer hours.

The word “revise” in referring to subsection (7) (a) remains limited to describing “extend.”

The language could have stated, “to extend up to the limit provided or to reduce the limit, but not below the limit allowed prior to passage of Amendment 50.” But it did not.

The same “revise” and “extend” language applies to raising gaming taxes beyond the present commission-set 20 percent limit.

Any increase in gaming taxes above the 20 percent figure has to be determined by all the voters in Colorado, not just the voters in the three towns, and not just the gaming commission.

To go above a 20 percent tax levied on the major casinos, the gaming commission has to vote to increase taxes under language already in statutes regarding reasons for an increase. But the commission vote means nothing until the issue is placed on the ballot for a statewide vote and approved.

Nor can the commission put the issue on the ballot; only the Legislature or an initiative signed by the required number of voters can do that. And — in the event that should happen — whatever incentive exists to provide a tax increase will be opposed by a huge campaign fund set up by casinos to kill the attempt. On a practical basis, it makes good business sense for casinos to spend $3 million one time to keep $10 million more in profit annually.

So, if it passes, Amendment 50 will create a major crack in the state’s regulatory system.

Casino proponents — not legislators — wrote the constitution’s original casino language. It passed in 1990, 574,620 to 428,096.

The casino-written language deliberately placed power in the hands of a gaming commission to assuage opponents and make credible the claims that this was going to be a “mom and pop” operation: A few slot machines in the front or back of stores selling rocks, T-shirts or groceries.

Amendment 50 also was written by the casino proponents, not by the Legislature. Under Amendment 50, increases in gaming bets, hours or types of gaming are taken from the gaming commission and indirectly given to the casinos. Indian reservation casinos will also get the same increases. And tax hikes are stifled.

There is no organized funded opposition to Amendment 50. Based on an advertising budget for Amendment 50 of more than $6.6 million, the measure is likely to pass.

However, some major papers may urge a “no” vote, and, considering the large number of ballot issues, this might be a year when voters actually read and follow editorial opinions. But that is a “wish,” not a “certainty.”

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.