Michigan May Listen to Slots Overtures Again

Another fight is brewing over whether Michigan's racetracks should be allowed to add casino-style gambling.

Supporters of adding slot machines and other casino games to horse tracks testified Aug. 21 before the state House Regulatory Reform Committee. Though no formal proposal has yet been introduced in the state legislature, one could come soon. Supporters are trying to build momentum for their effort, saying casino gambling at racetracks would raise tax revenue for a cash-strapped state government.

Michigan racetracks have been unsuccessful in their previous attempts to add slot machines and other games. Their efforts to start so-called racinos are opposed by Detroit and American Indian tribal casinos already operating in the state, along with anti-gambling organizations.

Those groups joined forces in 2004 to spark a voter-approved change to the state constitution making it more difficult for gambling expansion. The law requires most new gambling operations, except those run by Indian tribes or at Detroit's casinos, to be approved by voters at both state and local levels before they could go forward.

Roger Martin, a spokesman for the coalition that backed Proposal 1 in 2004, said the voters' support of that measure shows Michigan citizens don't want casino games at racetracks.

"It would be a difficult campaign for them to reverse the landslide voter opposition from 2004," Martin said.

Track operators try to counteract that by stressing that gambling already takes place at their locations.

Just getting to the ballot won't be easy. Two-thirds of the members of both the state House and state Senate would have to support placing the racetrack initiative on the statewide ballot. Another option would be for groups that support the gambling expansion to launch a citizen petition drive to put their issue before voters.

Either way, the supporters of the proposal want to see some votes at either the state or local levels as early as this year, with more votes in 2008.

Representatives of Michigan racetracks said allowing full-scale casinos at seven locations would raise more than $500 million a year for the state in new tax revenue. Some supporters have suggested that would lessen the need for a tax increase in Michigan.

Racinos also could be a way for tracks to drum up more business. Gambling has declined at the tracks over the past few decades, and a few operations have closed down. Magna Entertainment Corp. this month scrapped plans to build a raceracing track near Detroit Metropolitan Airport and also plans to close Great Lakes Downs in western Michigan after the 2007 season.

"We think this issue has the potential not only to help save the racing industry, but bring revenues to the state of Michigan," said Joe Garcia, a lawyer for the Michigan Racing Association.

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