Bill taps casinos, bails out tracks

Friday, May 30th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate voted Thursday for a bill aimed at rescuing the state's ailing horse racing industry by permitting tracks to offer electronic games now played only at Indian casinos.

Critics said the bill will open the door to Las Vegas-style gaming. Supporters said that already has happened, pointing to more than 60 Indian casinos across the state.

If the measure passes the House and is signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry, it would tax Indian casinos for the first time, if they agree to new compacts with the state.

In return for giving up part of their revenue, tribes would be allowed to continue some games now prohibited by the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Commission.

Officials estimate the bill will bring $30 million to the state from Indian tribes and between $5 million and $8 million from four pari-mutuel race tracks.

``What the Senate did today was vote to keep our state's valuable horse racing industry breathing,'' said Sen. Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, author of the bill. ``Without additional money for purses, the industry in Oklahoma will dry up and blow away and so will many of its 57,000 jobs.''

The bill passed the Senate, 25-19, getting the 25 votes required to pass a bill in the 48-member body. Twenty-three Democrats and two Republicans voted ``yes'' and 16 Republicans and three Democrats voted ``no.''

It is expected to be considered in the House on Friday, the final day that lawmakers can meet in regular session this year. Strong House opposition is expected.

Under the measure, Remington Park in Oklahoma City would be permitted to eventually have 750 electronic games. Fair Meadows in Tulsa can have 350, Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw 250 and Will Rogers Downs in Claremore 200.

Sen. Dick Wilkerson, D-Atwood, said senators should help the state's four pari-mutuel tracks even if they don't get a dime in tax revenue because the tracks bolster a $1.6 billion horse industry.

This is about building something and keeping something that is a part of our heritage,'' Wilkerson said.

Sen. Jim Williamson, R-Tulsa, Senate GOP leader, said he could not support expansion of gambling, adding that Oklahoma was heading toward becoming ``the Las Vegas of the Midwest.''

``I thought the lottery was a bad bill. This is a terrible bill, in my opinion,'' said Sen. Randy Brogdon R-Owasso.

Supporters said Oklahoma already has extensive gambling at Indian casinos.

``We do not regulate one inch of that activity, nor do we derive one penny from it,'' said Sen. Ted Fisher, D-Sapulpa.

Some of the debate revolved around whether the games being legalized at the tracks are Class II or Class III games. Supporters said that was immaterial since they types of games being allowed, such as ``electronic instant ticket'' games, are specified in the bill.

Wilkerson said even federal courts in different jurisdictions have differed on what constitutes Class II and Class III gambling.

Currently in Oklahoma, pari-mutuel racing is the only Class III gaming that is legal.

Hobson said he did not believe the measure would open the door to Las Vegas-style games such as craps, roulette and keno.

``It is a win, win, win proposition,'' he said. ``It will save our horse industry, give the state regulatory authority over tribal casinos and provide much needed revenue, most of which is earmarked for education.''