Gambling In Oklahoma Having Affect On Kansas Debate

Sunday, March 11th 2007, 12:57 pm
By: News On 6

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Pressure in the Statehouse to expand gambling in Kansas may not come this year from inside the Sunflower State. Thank Oklahoma for that. In recent years, the debate among legislators has focused on the number of casinos in Kansas City, Mo., the four American Indian casinos in northeast Kansas and the flights leaving for Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Supporters say Kansans have the gambling bug but are dropping their disposable money in slots that don't benefit the state.

Opponents say that's fine. They contend Kansas doesn't need the casino headache and the state is still puritan enough that many consider gambling a sin.

But in recent years, Oklahoma has added a new wrinkle.

There are at least two dozen casinos or bingo parlors within 60 miles of the Kansas border, mainly in northeast Oklahoma. Advertisements in Kansas newspapers offer residents low-cost day trips to the Sooner State to gamble.

For example, each Monday a Crossroads Travel tour bus from Joplin, Mo., pulls into Meadowbrook Mall in Pittsburg. For $15, 55 senior citizens load up for the hour-long ride to the Cherokee Resort Casino off Interstate 44 in Tulsa. Seniors are given vouchers from the casino.

``It doesn't cost them anything to go,'' said Jim Willard, owner of the travel line.

Though he said it might cost him a little business, Willard, who is also a property owner in Kansas, says the state should expand its gambling opportunities.

``I think we ought to, instead of money going across the border,'' he said. ``It's what's best for the state, and that's revenue for the state.''

A House committee began a series of hearings last week to consider gambling legislation. It largely follows previous proposals, putting slot machines at dog and horse tracks, with provisions for allowing a limited number of casinos elsewhere.

Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, an opponent of expanded gambling, said the proliferation of casinos in Oklahoma shouldn't build support in Kansas.

He said bringing casinos to Kansas will increase problems associated with them, such as gambling addiction. He also dismissed the argument that Kansas should have casinos because they're prevalent elsewhere.

``Everybody's speeding, so we might as well, too?'' he said. ``Did your mother tell you that just because everybody is jumping off a cliff, you should, too?''

Supporters say the window of opportunity for casinos in Kansas is quickly closing.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley noted that developers are interested in building a casino in Cherokee County, on 700 acres close to both Missouri and Oklahoma.

``And then not too far down the road, maybe 45 miles, is Arkansas,'' said Hensley, D-Topeka. ``We could have a casino located there and attract a lot of different people, I would think, from those different states.''

He said it's important to pass a bill this year because ``pretty soon, we're going to run out of options in terms of our competitiveness because of the proliferation of casinos in Oklahoma.''

That proliferation in Oklahoma has caused some lawmakers who've traditionally opposed expanded gambling to rethink their positions.

Among them are Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg.

McKinney said he still doesn't want casinos in his area, but he's willing to support legislation if it's limited to ``areas that have competition right across the state line.''

``I've never been a gambling supporter, but what these people are saying is, 'Look, it's in my community. It just happens to be across the state. Just give us a chance to keep this money in our community, because we have all down sides and none of the up side.' That's certainly the nature of the debate, even for people like me.''

Others aren't so easily swayed.

House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, hasn't rethought his opposition but acknowledged that Oklahoma's casinos are influencing the debate.

``Clearly, that's probably the main driving force, the expansion of gambling in Oklahoma,'' he said.

Last year, Senate leaders thought they had enough support to finally pass a gambling bill, only to see the votes dry up at the last moment. They vowed to wait for the bill to get traction in the House before showing their cards in this year's debate.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said legislators seem more aware of how much gambling is around Kansas.

``The realization is gambling is here. More Kansans are gambling than ever before,'' Sawyer said. ``Maybe it's time for us to try to keep some of that money in Kansas.''

Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Cherokee, said some of his constituents need only a five or seven minute drive to get to a casino in Oklahoma.

``You really don't know that you aren't still in Kansas when you drive there,'' he said. ``But the tax dollars know.''