Judging by the campaign advertisements, a voter might think the supporters and opponents of Colorado's Amendment 33 are talking about two different ballot questions.
According to its proponents, among them the amendment's sponsor, Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, the initiative is about supporting Colorado tourism and its environment without raising taxes. It would do so by installing up to 500 video lottery terminals at each of the state's five horse and dog tracks, generating an estimated $128 million in the first year, 61 percent of which would go to the state for tourism promotion and open-space and parks programs.
The Associated Press
Amendment 33: Would allow 500 video lottery terminals at each of five existing dog and horse racetracks and in casinos at Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. It would generate about $25 million for tourism, parks and open space.
Supporters: Support Colorado's Economy and Environment has raised $2.2 million and spent $1.7 million as of Sept. 29. Others include state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, and state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park; several tourism industry groups; and Club 20, a Western Slope business lobby group.
Opponents: Don't Turn Racetracks Into Casinos has raised $2 million and spent $655,000 as of Sept. 29. Others include Treasurer Mike Coffman; Action 22, a coalition of 22 southern Colorado counties; county and municipal lobbying organizations; school districts in Adams County and Colorado Springs; several historic preservation and economic development organizations and law enforcement groups.
According to its opponents, the initiative is about expanding gambling -- and its related social ills and expenses -- in Colorado.
They say it's also about putting much of the other 39 percent of that $128 million directly into the pockets of Wembley PLC, a foreign-owned company whose American subsidiary, Wembley USA, owns four of Colorado's tracks and is embroiled in a federal bribery indictment involving two of its top officials and a Rhode Island legislator. Wembley has contributed more than $2 million to the campaign to pass Amendment 33, according to the Rocky Mountain News. And, opponents say, of the 61 percent that goes to the state, while $25 million will be earmarked for tourism promotion, significant funding will go toward the upkeep of the state-owned gaming machines.
Video lottery terminals, or VLTs, look similar to slot machines and offer many of the same games, but instead of paying out in coins, winners receive paper payslips that can be redeemed for cash. Although the devices would be installed in locations where gaming already occurs, opponents argue the VLTs essentially are slot machines that will turn racetracks into casinos. Proponents of the ballot issue downplay the VLTs' similarity to slot machines, saying the paper payslips they generate are more reminiscent of lottery tickets.
Opponents say one critical flaw in the initiative is that it does not provide extra funding to the five communities directly affected by the bill to help with an anticipated increase in demand for social and welfare services attributed to gambling.
In Pueblo County, home of the Wembley USA-owned Pueblo Greyhound Park, officials are scratching their heads, Pueblo County Commissioner Loretta Kennedy said.
Kennedy said even though the Pueblo County commissioners have not taken a formal stand on the issue, the "general opinion of the board" is that the tourism initiative would cause a negative impact in the county.
"We don't really see any benefit for our county or city, as far as (Amendment 33) is written right now," Kennedy said. "I really don't see how it would support tourism. Probably, it would help to build some hotels and that type of thing, but as far as county government and county tax base, it really doesn't have any value for our county. There should be some benefit built into this for the counties hosting this operation."
The communities of Black Hawk, Cripple Creek and Central City, where casinos exist, also are opposing the initiative. Installing VLTs will hurt the casino towns' business, they argue, noting that the casinos already pay a 13.8-percent gaming tax to the state.
But others have said they believe Amendment 33 is a feasible solution to Colorado's declining tourism revenues.
The Steamboat Springs Chamber of Commerce endorses the initiative. Chamber President Ulrich Salzgerber calls it "a real positive step."
"We've lost money since we lost the tourism tax in the '80s," Salzgerber said. "This won't cost us any out-of-pocket money, and I think we could use $25 million per year to promote Colorado. It's way overdue."
Amendment 33's success or failure could rest with undecided voters, either because of a lack of information or fear that the issue is being forced onto Coloradans by private interest groups such as Wembley.
"A lot of people don't have a real formal position, I believe, on Amendment 33, and I happen to be one of them," Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. "I guess the concerns that I hear when I'm involved in discussions with people are that there seem to be a lot of unanswered questions about how much Amendment 33, if passed, would really expand the ability to have casino-type gambling, even though it would only be lottery machines in the horse-racing areas.
"I think the idea is a good one that we need to raise more money for tourism promotion in Colorado. It seems to me that a lot of people have concerns about the vehicle we're using to raise that money."
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