By Tom Schram
Another legislative package that would bring video gaming to Michigan racetracks has been launched in the state House. And while circumstances point to this attempt as having the best chance yet of becoming law, lurking in the corner is the 600-pound gorilla of the Michigan gaming industry--the Detroit casino lobby--ready to quash any infringement upon its territory.
Last fall, former state representative Judith Scranton introduced a seven-bill package that would have brought video gaming to racetracks. Those bills never got out of committee.
On April 25, Republican Rep. Larry Julian unveiled a five-bill package that would accomplish much of what Scranton's bills sought. Two differences make this attempt more credible:
First, Julian is speaker pro-tem of the House and he says the bills have the full backing of house leadership. And second, Michigan's new governor, Jennifer Granholm, has been conspicuous in her silence on the issue, while her predecessor, John Engler, was staunchly and vocally opposed to the spread of gambling in the state.
On the 25th, Julian held a five-hour meeting with 100 representatives of virtually every racing and gaming interest in the state, including the Detroit casinos. The package he proposes would: allow for up to 500 video lottery terminals at established racetracks, establish up to 15 off-track betting simulcast theatres and legalize telephone betting in Michigan, legalize electronic keno at the tracks, permit casinos to create simulcasting parlors, and mandate tougher jail sentences and fines for race-fixing or tampering with a VLT.
Julian was elated at the end of the meeting. "They all bought into this," he said. "At the end of the day, anyone with a horse racing interest supports this package because this benefits everyone. The only ones I believe who should be opposed to this will be the Detroit casinos. I don't think this impacts them at all, but they do."
Michigan assistant attorney general Don McGehee, who attended the meeting, called the proposed legislation "very progressive and very comprehensive" but he acknowledged the power of the casino lobby.
"There's a lot of fragmentation out there in the gaming industry in Michigan, pitting the casino industry against the racing industry," he said.
The hammer may lie in Granholm's hand. While the Democrat has tight political ties to the city of Detroit, she also faces soaring deficits and is looking hard at every potential source of revenue-enhancement.
For his part, Julian said he is unaware of Granholm's position on the legislation. "Well, I don't know. I know the governor and her staff is certainly interested in the revenue increase," he said.
McGehee echoed those sentiments. "I don't know what her position is, but I believe she supports it as another revenue source for the state," he said. "And that's badly needed."
Julian said he would introduce the legislation into the Agriculture Committee the week of April 28. He said his goal is to have the bills clear the House by the end of May. And he said there is a sense of urgency.
"This is absolutely what horse racing and Michigan needs," he said. "It's a wasted environment right now that is dying a rapid death, in my opinion. I believe that the dollar that is out there for entertainment is available to us in this industry and in agriculture. We just need to capitalize on it."