Government

Another growing season for Iowa gambling?

The crowd on the top deck of The President Riverboat Casino throws streamers as the riverboat takes its first gambling cruise on April 1, 1991. Expansion of gambling in Iowa began only a few years later, and continues today. (Quad-City Times)
The crowd on the top deck of The President Riverboat Casino throws streamers as the riverboat takes its first gambling cruise on April 1, 1991. Expansion of gambling in Iowa began only a few years later, and continues today. (Quad-City Times)

Ah, spring, a time when a certain four-letter state we all know and love has, historically, set its sights on gambling, and more gambling.

This spring, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is considering a bill approved by your state Legislature that would allow sports betting run by state-licensed casinos, both at on-premises sportsbooks and online. The governor may sign it into law between this writing and your reading. Or veto it, if she never wants to borrow casino-mogul Gary Kirke’s jet again.

Reynolds told The Gazette’s James Q. Lynch last week that she’s been hearing from Iowans on both sides of the issue.

It’s sort of surprising to hear there still are two sides to a gambling debate in Iowa. Are we talking scratch tickets vs. slots? Or maybe it’s the great blackjack vs. poker feud?

In a state with 19 state-licensed casinos, three tribal casinos, a horse track and a state lottery, gambling opponents must feel sort of like folks who curse the commercialization of Christmas or who lament America’s sartorial slide into a sweatpants nation. The fight flickers, but the battle seems all but lost.

But there were indeed two strong sides 30 springs ago, when the Iowa Legislature approved riverboat gambling in April 1989. Your humble columnist, as I’ve mentioned before, was a high school-aged Iowa House page, in a blue polyester jacket and a necktie borrowed from his dad, when it all happened.

The bill passed the House 51-47 on April 21, 1989, roughly a week after it had failed. Four lawmakers changed their minds and voted yes. Plenty of arms were twisted. Legislative phones rang off the hook. Pages were run ragged, let me tell you. The casino lobby, with all of its remarkable clout, was born before my innocent eyes.

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“No one’s going to get hurt very much. We just want the average family. Mom and Dad can put the kids to bed at night and get on the gambling boat,” a Davenport barge and trucking company owner, Bernard Goldstein, told the New York Times at the time. He hoped to run a casino boat and a “Mark Twain theme park,” the Times reported.

It was high drama. And it turns out both sides were right, and wrong.

“I don’t think Iowa is going to go to hell in a handbasket if this passes,” said then-state Rep. Dennis Black, a Democrat from Newton, during debate, according to an Associated Press report.

It’s true. Iowa, at this hour, remains non-Hades.

“Like a sickness and a disease, it spreads across the state of Iowa,” said Rep. Phil Tyrrell, R-North English. “We’ll see all of the problems that follow, the drugs and the prostitution …”

Spread it did. But predictions that Iowa would become a lawless Vegas on the prairie, with organized crime, brothels, etc., were greatly exaggerated. Legal gambling has caused problems, particularly for those who struggle with addiction, but the state hardly became a sin capital. Tight regulation of the industry hasn’t allowed any major crime to get organized.

As Gov. Terry Branstad signed the bill, the AP reported, “Jubilant backers predicted historic 19th century riverboats would be plying the Mississippi River, luring thousands of tourists and millions of dollars to a state that’s suffered from years of farm-based economic hard times.”

Boats did ply the mighty river starting in 1991. Gamblers were limited to $5 wagers and a $200 loss limit per cruise. It was all about river heritage and wholesome family fun, insisted supporters, some of whom dressed up in riverboat garb during the House debate.

But by 1994, under growing competitive pressure from boats in neighboring states, lawmakers dropped the loss limits. The high-stakes era began and picked up steam.

So, basically, reality fell someplace between hell and high heritage.

Gambling has sparked economic development in places such as Davenport and Dubuque. And thousands of gamblers did cross the border to lighten their wallets in Iowa’s casinos. Sure, there was no “Mark Twain theme park,” but several Iowa communities gained jobs, pursued riverfront/downtown revivals and gained tourism amenities they didn’t have before riverboats.

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But opponents were so very right when they predicted limited gambling eventually would lead to massive expansion. As mentioned, the first big expansion push came just five years later, including provisions allowing dockside gambling and permitting racetracks to seek voter approval for slot machines. In 2004, amid a wave of casino plans in several counties, lawmakers ended the requirement that riverboats actually cruise, and allowed facilities to be built over water away from rivers. In 2007, the Legislature voted to permit casinos on dry land.

River heritage went out of fashion before my dad’s necktie.

The casino lobby’s ability to get what it wants, or kill what it dislikes, has become legendary. And now, 30 years later, what casinos want is sports betting and online wagering.

Regardless of what happens this year, casinos will push for more online gambling options in the years ahead. It’s never enough, and the house usually wins in the end, as history indicates.

They’re the New England Patriots of Statehouse lobbyists, hardly beloved but heavily favored.

Place your bets. From home, in your sweatpants.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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