Corbett’s casino push heads to the Statehouse

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August 5, 2014 | 3:57 pm

Last week, we got the Lambertorium. This week, we get Corbett’s reforms.

On Thursday, Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission Chairman Lamberti said he’s not interested in hearing any proposals for new casinos during the next three years. That includes you, Cedar Rapids. His fellow commissioners agreed, although they did not formally vote to shut the door.

On Sunday, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett’s gambling reform plan hit the papers. He’ll ask the Iowa Legislature to put the state’s first smoke-free casino in Cedar Rapids, and then place a formal 10-year moratorium on new licenses. Also, the mayor would double the bucks non-casino counties get from gambling revenue, to $21 million annually, while also throwing a bone to casinos by axing a state tax on free-play promotions. Half of that $22 million in tax relief would go to non-profits that hold casino licenses and hand out charitable contributions.

“I think it’s worth continuing the effort,” said Corbett, nearly four months after the commission voted 4-1 to turn down Cedar Rapids’ casino license application for a $174 million facility.

Corbett, a former Iowa House speaker, knows winning at the Statehouse means building coalitions. That’s especially true when the core issue is, basically, a local one. Why would lawmakers from elsewhere care if Cedar Rapids gets a casino? Most don’t.

But if they represent some of the 84 Iowa counties without a casino, they might like boosting their districts’ share of casino revenues. It’s the same formula Corbett and city leaders used to win approval for a program funding Cedar Rapids flood protection while also paying for projects across the state. They broadened its appeal. The smoke-free idea, for example, might bring health advocates into the fray.

At first blush, this seems like a plan existing casino operators would oppose, especially those who would lose business to Cedar Rapids. But multiple casinos would benefit from eliminating the tax on free-play promotions, both through lower taxes and the freedom to more aggressively market to players. More casinos would benefit from that tax reduction than would lose business to Cedar Rapids.

Could that reality split the casino cartel’s Capitol clout? It’s an interesting question. Throw in a moratorium that locks the market in place for a decade, and some casino interests may be willing to listen.

I think the biggest obstacle will be strong legislative reluctance to take the unprecedented step of issuing a license without the commission’s OK. But Corbett says lawmakers could figure out a way to direct the commission while still allowing its members to give the final OK.

If Cedar Rapids showed up at the Capitol just looking for a license, I’d say no chance. This is a far more intriguing approach. I still think its chances are very slim, but surprises occur under the gilded dome. Some of its pieces might be approved separately. We’ll also see how elections this fall may reshape the legsialtive landscape.

But Corbett also needs to watch his homefront, where the “move on” chorus is becoming louder. I’m hearing from plenty of local folks who think the city should move to plan B and find another project or projects for the high-profile casino site. The mayor isn’t ready to give up, but if his reform proposals go nowhere in 2015, even his allies may be urging him to fold.

l Staff Columnist Todd Dorman appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com.

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