116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As I’ve written many times, whatever the casino cartel in Iowa wants under Iowa’s Golden Dome of Wisdom, it usually gets. Backers of a Cedar Rapids casino learned that the hard way again this week
This time, it was a legislative Blitzkrieg, hitting so fast that local leaders and their Statehouse lobbyists had no time to react. On Tuesday morning the Senate voted to add an amendment to a gambling regulatory bill that decrees a two-year moratorium on the issuance of new casino licenses in Iowa. The measure is retroactive to June 1, the day before Cedar Rapids casino interests were set to make their pitch to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
The amendment was added without explanation. By Tuesday afternoon it passed the House and is on its way to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk. Who wanted this legislative action? Who knows? But we can certainly make an educated guess.
“The Association did not have a position taken on wanting the moratorium piece — it was a late add-on to our priority omnibus legislation and some members of my group had advocated for it,” said Wes Ehrecke, president and CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association, which represents casinos.
Which members? Round up the usual suspects.
Dan Kehl, CEO of Elite Casino Resorts, which owns casinos in Riverside, the Quad Cities and in Larchwood in northwest Iowa, has made no secret of his strong opposition to a Cedar Rapids gaming facility, which would take business from his Riverside Casino & Golf Resort. Owners of Waterloo’s Isle Casino Hotel also have opposed a Cedar Rapids casino. Other cartel members may have joined them to protect their current slices of the pie.
The moratorium amendment was added by the Senate State Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport. Smith is running for state treasurer. Maybe casino interests can help. Since 2016, Smith has received $20,500 in donations for his state senate campaigns from Elite PAC, Elite Casino Resort’s political action committee. He received a $2,500 donation for his treasurer run in December.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who chairs the House State Government Committee, said Iowa’s casino market is saturated and he’s worried about the effect more competition would have on donations from casino revenues to non-profits. These are arguments often deployed by casino interests.
So the cartel’s fingerprints are all over this.
“At the 11th hour when it looked like we might be successful, special interests chose to work in the shadows to achieve their goals,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donell said in a statement. “Existing casino owners don’t want to risk their winnings even when it’s better for Iowans and a few politicians are happy to do their bidding. It’s incredibly disappointing and frankly, nauseating.”
O’Donnell, a Republican, said she’s reached out to Reynolds, urging her to veto the bill. Good luck. Reynolds rarely vetoes the Republican-controlled Legislature’s work product.
Lawmakers in the past have largely deferred to the Racing and Gaming Commission to take applications and set moratoriums. But this is a Legislature that defers to no one, not local governments, not school boards. It is the center of all wisdom.
I honestly don’t care if Cedar Rapids gets a casino. But for lawmakers to step in like this with a May surprise and deny local casino backers and local voters who want gambling access to the licensing process smells. Smith has spearheaded efforts in recent year to restrict voting in Iowa, so I doubt cares much about any of the will-of-the-people stuff.
Sure, it’s just two years. But now that they’ve done it once, there’s no reason to believe lawmakers won’t extend the moratorium. Especially if that’s what the cartel wants.
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