Meeker Calls for Regulatory Consistency, Racetrack Gaming

Churchill Downs Inc. president Tom Meeker addressed the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States Jan. 11 with calls for regulatory consistency across jurisdictions and support for expanding racetrack gambling.

"I firmly believe that alternative gambling is a necessary adjunct to our current product," Meeker told the gathering in Miami Beach, Fla., that included more than 30 state legislators among its 155 registrants. "I'm very confident that racing has a bright future; the only question is how we can get it on a growth trend."

Meeker's talk followed a spirited panel discussion concerning video lottery terminals at racetracks which featured widely disparate statistics on the social costs of expanded gambling. Wayne Lemons, director of the Delaware Lottery, which oversees VLTs at Delaware Park and two harness tracks, said his state has experienced no significant increase in crime or compulsive gambling since the introduction of VLTs. The Rev. Tom Grey of the National Coalition against Legalized Gambling strongly disagreed.

"For a very long time in our history, casino gambling was outlawed by government and for very good reasons," said Grey, who cited increases in rates of gambling addiction and bankruptcy within 50 miles of casinos. "Our study shows that for every $1 in revenue that a casino brings in, there is about $1.90 of social cost involved."

Grey's opinion was significantly in the minority among the participants, many of whom were regulators or legislators from among the 16 states that are currently considering VLT legislation. Included in that group was Sen. Steve Geller, president of the NCLGS, who is sponsoring legislation in Florida to permit VLTs at existing pari-mutuel facilities.

Like most, Geller cited the economic impact that VLTs would have on states struggling with declining revenue. "Our governor (Jeb Bush) opposes expansion of gambling, but I think he opposes increasing taxes even more," Geller said.

Meeker, too, hit on the economic theme in his well-received 25-minute speech, calling racing "an excellent economic catalyst" and mentioning the annual $200-million impact the Kentucky Derby has on the Louisville area. Disputing an argument posed by panelist Dr. Richard Thalheimer of the University of Louisville Equine Industry Program, Meeker suggested legislators consider the positive experience of Woodbine in Canada in converting VLT gamblers to pari-mutuel wagering.

He also sought to allay the legislators' fears about the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6 fraud, using it as a vehicle to address the need for consistent regulations across state boundaries in matters such as wagering and medication rules.

"The events of Oct. 26 have awakened the whole industry and clearly demonstrated how events in some other jurisdiction can adversely affect our business," Meeker said.