Michigan Racino Bill Still in Conference Committee

by Tom Schram

Officially there is still life in legislation to introduce video lottery terminals to Michigan racetracks. But following an Aug. 4 vote in the state legislature, the breathing is shallow and the pulse is weak.

Lawmakers voted to increase the tax on the three Detroit casinos from 18% to 24% percent and provide about $6 million to state agriculture programs, including horse racing. But the vote was widely seen as a compromise that will kill the already wounded prospects of establishing racinos in Michigan.

"There comes a point in time when you've held out as long as you can to get everything you can get and then you start losing ground," said Rep. Larry Julian, sponsor of the racino legislation. "And we had reached that point. We had gained all we were going to gain."

The racino legislation is in conference committee waiting for a House-Senate panel to iron out differences between the versions of the bills. Julian said before ending his opposition to the casino tax bill, he had received assurances from fellow lawmakers the racino bill wouldn't wither in committee.

"I have a commitment that we'll get a fair and honest vote this fall," Julian said.

That may be a moot point. Michigan voters will decide on the Nov. 2 ballot whether to ban the expansion of non-Indian gambling without a statewide vote of approval. The initiative was spearheaded by the casino lobby and supported by religious groups opposed to any expansion of gambling.

A July 6-8 poll of 600 state residents showed 68% approve the measure, 28% oppose it, and 4% are undecided. Even the ever-optimistic Julian said passage of the proposal would end any chance of racinos in Michigan.

"That would be the death knell," he said. "It absolutely would kill our VLT legislation."

Still, Julian said: "I'm not going to quit. Every day of the rest of my term will be spent trying to get agricultural enhancement passed. There's too much money. It's too fair a project, and there's nothing wrong with fair competition. I am going to continue to pursue this on behalf of agriculture, generations of agriculture that would benefit from VLT legislation."