Where gambling debate goes now

24 hour Dorman,
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April 21, 2014 | 11:46 am

Our Iowa Legislature isn’t going to wade into a gambling debate next year.

I know, I know, there were noises made to that effect Thursday as the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission voted 4-1 to deny Cedar Rapids’ bid for a casino license.

After Commission Chairman Jeff Lamberti explained why he couldn’t vote for a license that might destabilize, cannibalize and saturate-ize, he mused that any state lawmakers who don’t like that approach always can change the rules of the casino game. They could trade our “stable and predictable” market, shielded by the protective wing of the commission, for a freewheeling competition fest. Their call, after all.

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, also suggested that it might be time for the Legislature to review the commission’s workload, make up and such. But not this year. Next year. Maybe.

NOT GONNA HAPPEN

But as I said in the opening, that’s not going to happen.

For one thing, gambling debates can make legislative leaders break out in hives. Leaders like to control the outcome of legislative debates, but gambling debates often are uncontrollable. The nice neat lines of partisanship, the standard divides that make legislative actions predictable, disappear when it comes to gambling. Liberals start siding with evangelicals, evangelicals start siding with existing casinos, people start voting their “conscience.” Cats and dogs start living together. Chaos.

What starts out as a nice, limited debate over one small aspect of Iowa’s gambling structure can explode into a much larger scrum over all things gambling, from Bingo to sports book to smoking bans. If you’re not careful, it can be a can of worms inside Pandora’s box, tucked in a hornet’s nest.

By January, Cedar Crossing’s license fail will be a faded footnote outside of the Cedar Rapids metroplex. Greene County will be building its casino (yes, I think it gets a license). The 18 existing casinos will be humming along, vacuuming money from patrons’ pockets. And most lawmakers will see little need to mess with anything related to gambling, let alone revamping its regulatory structure and entire competitive philosophy. The status quo is powerful, as Cedar Crossing backers discovered.

But that doesn’t mean legislators shouldn’t do something. I think they should.

WHAT THE STATE SHOULD DO

Lawmakers should at least consider formally closing the door on new casinos for the next five years, maybe longer. They should send a crystal clear signal that the scope of casino gambling in Iowa is set. No room for mixed messages or misunderstanding. A clear signal could stop other communities from experiencing what Cedar Rapids experienced.

Because, believe it or not, it’s entirely possible that other Iowa towns could be under the impression that overwhelming referendum passage, a well-crafted casino plan and large-scale local financial backing just might get them a key to the casino club. Then they find out none of that amounts to a hill of beans next to a couple of market studies. That’s a hard lesson to learn.

Speaking of studies, with or without a moratorium, the state should conduct a statewide gambling market assessment every couple of years. That way, no one has to guess whether the market is saturated, or whether conditions make expansion even worth discussing. That way, there always is a set of recent numbers to consult, not some studies done five or six years ago. And you’d think the Legislature would want to keep closer tabs on its cash cows and the market where they do all their grazing for greenbacks.

And speaking of cash cows, lawmakers really should think about the curious reality that Cedar Rapids gamblers are leaving piles of money in places such as Riverside, with precious little of that loot coming back to non-profits in those gamblers’ communities.

Odds are, the distribution formula won’t be rewritten. We recently found out that just about the worst thing you can do is take money away from a casino. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done.

Lawmakers once created the Vision Iowa and Community Attraction and Tourism programs as ways of spreading around the positive impact of gambling dollars. Maybe it’s time to think about a non-profit version of Vision Iowa, with organizations from across Iowa seeking competitive grants funded with gaming proceeds. It could be a big success, and take the sting out of missing the gambling boat.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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