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Iowa Politics Roundup: Senate Approves Gambling Bill PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Thursday, 21 April 2011 08:24

The Iowa Senate on Wednesday voted 38-12 for a gambling bill that calls for a report on Internet poker and lifts the requirement that Iowa casinos face a vote of the people every eight years.

“There are good parts of this bill and other parts that give me grave concern,” said Senator Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale). “The seven years I’ve been down here, we’ve talked about the referendums, horse racing, but never could any of these bills survive and stand on its own two feet.”

Senate File 526 would have the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission produce a report that would look further into the issue of Internet poker. The bill originally would have legalized Internet poker, but Zaun credited the change to an Iowa poll that showed 73 percent of Iowans are opposed to legalizing Internet gambling.

“The original bill had Internet gambling, the state of Iowa going into the Internet-gambling business. Well, the public spoke loudly, and we decided that this was going to become a study,” Zaun said. “We have the opportunity to slam the door on Internet gambling here today. I am going to support slamming that door.”

But Senator Jeff Danielson (D-Cedar Falls), the bill’s floor manager, said Iowa can’t ignore the fact that about 150,000 Iowans are taking part in Internet poker illegally every day, and the revenue is benefiting offshore Internet-gambling companies.

“Technology and time marches on. We have an issue before us that outpaced our own laws,” Danielson said. “This issue has risen to such a level of economic implications for the United States. Someone is going to act. Iowans are pragmatic and practical. In this case, I think Iowa citizens deserve a framework, consumer protection and a regulatory framework.”

On a voice vote, senators called Wednesday for an additional report by the Iowa Department of Public Health on the societal effects of Internet gambling. The report would be due October 1.

Drawing the most discussion during Wednesday’s debate was a provision about referendums.

Under the bill, a casino that has successfully passed two referendums would no longer be subject to an automatic county referendum every eight years on its gambling license. That part of the bill would be retroactive to 1994. However, citizens could petition for a referendum if they gather signatures of at least 10 percent of the voters from the last general election.

Senator Jerry Behn (R-Boone) offered an amendment to strike that portion of the bill, but it was rejected 16-34.

“We are breaking our word. Is it any wonder people don’t trust politicians?” Behn said, arguing to keep the referendums. “Here we’re openly acknowledging we’re changing the rules of the game.”

Behn said it takes only 100 signatures to run for the Iowa Senate and only 50 signatures to run for the Iowa House. That’s 7,500 signatures for all 150 members of the Iowa legislature to get on the ballot, he said, while a referendum on a casino could require nearly three times as many signatures.

“We’re going to require 21,000 signatures to get a referendum in Polk County,” Behn said. “This is a hurdle so high. Why do you think they’re [casinos are] asking for a reverse referendum? Because they know it won’t happen.”

But Danielson argued that referendum votes on casinos routinely pass at rates of 70 percent or higher. He said costs for a referendum range from $1 million to $4 million.

Senator Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo) said the vote on a casino’s future every eight years is a hindrance to investors.

“Why would they put money into their community when in eight years, we’re going to yank the rug out from under them?” Dotzler asked. “It’s important that we get rid of it to save taxpayer dollars.”

Senator Roby Smith (R-Davenport) argued that referendums on casinos don’t cost any money because they’re usually held at the same time as another election. And Zaun said eliminating the requirement of referendums every eight years also eliminates accountability.

Senator Randy Feenstra (R-Hull) proposed an amendment to extend the state smoking ban to casino floors. But Senate President Jack Kibbie (D-Emmetsburg) ruled that because the bill was a narrow one that did not deal with smoking or health, the amendment was not germane to the bill.

Also under the bill, gamblers would be permitted to make advance deposits to place online or telephone bets on live horse races, as is done in 20 other states.

No effort was made Wednesday on the Senate floor to end live greyhound racing at tracks in Council Bluffs and Dubuque, even though the issue remains key for those two casinos. The bill now moves to the Iowa House for further debate.