Voters asked to expand money for schools

Foes say it’s just a disguise for out-of-state casino

DENVER – And they’re off. After approval of a ballot initiative that would expand gambling to raise money for K-12 education, both sides of the issue are preparing for a costly horse race.

Amendment 68 would generate more than $100 million annually for K-12 education by permitting expanded gaming at Arapahoe Park horse racing track in Aurora. The racetrack would pay 34 percent of proceeds from gambling to support public and charter schools. An upfront payment of $25 million also would be paid to the special education fund.

“The days from now through the November election will be spent educating Coloradans about this initiative and its benefits to Colorado students and the economy,” said the initiative’s two proponents, former Sen. Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora, and former Rep. Vickie Armstrong, R-Akron. “We will be reaching out in a variety of ways from door-to-door canvassing to small group meetings in neighborhoods.”

The initiative would allow for gaming at one future horse racetrack in Pueblo and Mesa counties after hosting live racing and wagering for five continuous years.

Games included would be slot machines and card games, and the minimum size to qualify would be 2,500 slot machines, significantly larger than current Colorado casinos.

Proponents qualified for the ballot July 28 after submitting more than 136,000 signatures.

But opponents – a coalition of casino owners – are preparing for an expensive campaign. Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos has raised about $9.1 million, mostly contributions from the Colorado Gaming Association, which represents casinos in Colorado’s historic mining towns. They also have seen major contributions from the casinos themselves.

Proponents are buoyed by the backing of Rhode Island-based Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc., owner of Arapahoe Park. Coloradans for Better Schools Inc., has raised $4.1 million.

Critics of the initiative suggest that Twin River is interested only in expanding its gambling interests because competition in Massachusetts that could siphon off business from its casino in Rhode Island. They say the initiative has little to do with education.

Michele Ames, spokeswoman for Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos, said that proponents were able to make the ballot only through a paid signature-gathering drive.

“They’ll spend more on the campaign than they did on the petition drive spinning this as an education measure rather than a self-serving casino gambling measure,” Ames said. “But it still won’t cover up the fact that few, if any, of the 36,000 teachers in Colorado volunteered to carry their petitions, and none of the 178 school districts in the state seem willing to endorse their proposal.”

The Colorado Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, said it won’t take a position. The Colorado Association of School Boards, or CASB, has not yet taken a position and doesn’t expect one until September.

The Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado, which advocates for treatment and education on problem gambling, said it will remain neutral.

The lack of immediate support from the education world is a departure from Amendment 66 last year, which was endorsed by teachers and school boards. But voters still widely rejected the nearly $1 billion tax increase for schools, and so Hagedorn and Armstrong are exploring other options.

“We strongly believe this measure will unite Coloradans,” said Hagedorn, who opposed Amendment 66 and sat on the School Finance Interim Committee in 1993. “Though each school district and the charter school institute will have the flexibility to use their share of the more than $100 million in new revenue as they see fit, we expect many will put the funds toward reducing classroom sizes, adding new technology or improving school security.”

Proponents say the ballot question offers more of a guarantee that dollars would flow into the classroom. Concerns were raised that dollars from Amendment 66 would have been used to backfill unfunded pension liabilities.

“The $100 million in added revenue can be achieved without a tax hike on the individual taxpayer,” said Armstrong, a former teacher who has been involved with school finance issues for more than three decades. “Quite simply, the initiative is good public policy.”