116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In November, voters in Linn County and the Cedar Rapids metro will be picking winners in some barn-burning ballot battles.
Linn County voters will be asked to permanently renew authorization for casino gambling in the county. It’s a battle that pits pro-casino forces under the banner Linn Wins! against, well, um, no opposition has yet materialized.
In the Cedar Rapids “metro block,” also including Hiawatha, Robins Marion and Fairfax, voters will be asked to renew a one-cent local-option sales tax. In Cedar Rapids, where the tax is used for the city’s Paving for Progress streets program. It’s a battle between tax supporters carrying the banner of Paving for More Progress and, well, again there’s no organized opposition at this point.
OK, the barns seem pretty safe. At least for now.
Both measures won lopsided victories when first introduced. In March 2013, 61 percent of county voters who braved a snowstorm supported legal gambling. Since then, four bids for casino licenses have been turned down by the Racing and Gaming Commission. But hope springs eternal.
Also in 2013, the penny-per-dollar sales tax was approved with 62 percent of the vote in the metro block, with more than 60 percent support in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Fairfax. The tax has provided $122 million in funding for street repairs and projects in Cedar Rapids. Fixing the city’s streets remains a top priority among local voters, as it has been since roads were invented.
A poll released Friday by Paving for More Progress showed 66.7 percent of 514 likely voters polled said they would vote to extend the sales tax. Another 29.6 percent would end the sales tax and 3.7 percent were undecided. The poll by Davenport-based Victory Enterprises had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.
Paving for More Progress has raised more than $200,000, according to state campaign finance filings. The money comes from a long list of businesses, including paving companies, construction firms, engineering outfits and others that do work on infrastructure projects like the ones paid for by the local-option sales tax.
More than 30 companies have donated to the pro-tax campaign. The largest donations were $10,000, contributed by 13 companies. Six of the companies that donated are on a list provided by the city of the 14 firms that have received the most sales tax funds.
That list is topped by Marion’s Rathje Construction, which donated $10,000. Not a bad investment considering the company has been awarded $32.5 million in Paving for Progress projects. Boomerang, a site work contractor from Anamosa also donated $10,000, and has done $15 million worth of work on city street projects.
Asphalt contractor LL Pelling, with plants in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Marion, donated $10,000 and has done $9.7 million worth of work. Dave Schmitt Construction donated $10,000 and has been paid $4.2 million for city street projects. Peterson Contractors, a highway contractor based in Reinbeck, has worked on $2.1 million in projects and donated $10,000 to Paving for More Progress. Midwest Concrete in Peosta has been paid $2.1 million for city work and donated $5,000 to the pro-tax campaign.
It's not hard to see from those numbers why local and regional companies in the business of building roads and related work would want the tax renewed.
On the gambling front, Linn Wins! has yet to report any donations. When the dust settled after the 2013 referendum, campaign finance filings showed that casino backers and opponents combined to spend more than $3.4 million.
Much of the money aimed at defeating legal gambling in Linn County was donated by existing casino interests who wanted to head off potential competition from a Cedar Rapids casino, including Riverside Casino and Gold resort, the Isle of Capri in Waterloo and the Meskwaki Casino in Tama.
The Cedar Rapids development group, which led the charge for a casino, remains the city’s preferred casino developer through 2029.
Other factors have changed. The board for the Linn County nonprofit that would be the casino license holder has a full slate of new members. The Racing and Gaming commission has also turned over, with four members who have not voted on a Cedar Rapids project. One slot on the commission remains open, but the governor’s office hasn’t said why. An email I sent asking about the empty seat remains unanswered.
Unlike 2013, there’s no glitzy casino plan for voters to ogle. No impressive renderings. No steakhouse. There’s only the hope that someday the state’s second-largest city can join the casino club.
It remains to be seen if Riverside owner Dan Kehl and others will mount a campaign against referendum renewal in Linn County. Only one county, Wapello County, has voted against renewing a casino referendum since casinos were legalized. Most renewals pass by wide margins.
And if the Racing and Gaming Commission continues making licensing decisions based on market studies and obsessing over “cannibalization” of revenues from existing casinos, Kehl and others may not have much to fear. Even with new members, the influence of the casino cartel is strong.
And no, I don’t think anyone is going to offer us a water park this time.
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