Panel greets gaming legislation with doubts

Rick Smith
Published: October 4 2012 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:27 am in

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission meets again June 10, and that's the day the five members are apt to decide if they will lift their self-imposed moratorium on new gambling licenses in the state.

Iowa lawmakers, in passing new gambling legislation, tossed the ball back to the commission to decide on expanding gambling in the state.

The commission voted in November to continue its moratorium and asked the Legislature to make the decision.

"I don't know why they did that," Mike Mahaffey of Montezuma, chairman of the commission, said Tuesday. "My guess is that it's very difficult to reach a consensus on this issue in the Legislature."

Gov. Tom Vilsack put it more pointedly. "I think it's unfortunate that the Legislature chose to shift the more difficult set of decisions to a non-elected commission not directly accountable to the public," Vilsack said. "The executive branch will assume that responsibility. We'll do our job."

Of three of five commission members contacted Tuesday, Mahaffey remains the most skeptical about lifting the moratorium.

Mahaffey, who has a private law practice and is Poweshiek County attorney, said he sees and hears about too many stories about the negative consequences of gambling.

The commission also has asked the Legislature to set some limit on the number of new licenses if a moratorium is lifted, but lawmakers did not do that.

Commission member Gerald Bair of Ankeny suggested Tuesday that a majority of the commission is like him, leaning toward lifting a moratorium on new gambling licenses.

Bair pointed to a media straw poll he participated in last week in which two of five members were for lifting the moratorium and he was leaning in that direction.

Six counties now have passed referendums to add gambling: Black Hawk, Palo Alto, Worth, Franklin, Wapello and Webster.

Commission member Joyce Jarding of Farley said Tuesday that she wished the Legislature would have given the commission more direction.

"It's an issue that affects all Iowans, and I think it's their responsibility," she said.

Jarding said she is more skeptical of lifting the moratorium than some of her commission colleagues, and she said the commission needs to do more research before it decides.

Jim Lind, a former state senator and member of the Black Hawk County Gaming Association, on Tuesday said the new state gaming legislation was nothing but

good news for Waterloo's plan to bring in a riverboat casino. Lind predicted that the state commission would vote 4-1, maybe 5-0, to lift the moratorium on June 10. He noted that two studies, one by the commission, have shown that the Waterloo area is "woefully" underserved by gambling in the state.

In Cedar Rapids, Jim Cannon, who led the grass-roots effort to bring a casino to Cedar Rapids last year, was throwing in his towel on gambling here.

The new legislation does not allow a new referendum for eight years it had been two years in a county that has voted gambling down. Linn County rejected gambling only last November.

"In eight years, we can come in and see what it looks like," he said. "But it won't be me. I'll be 70 then."

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