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Casino backers say they’ve got the signatures to advance school funding measure

Supporters of a proposed ballot measure to expand casino gambling announced Monday they’ve gathered well more than the required number of signatures to put the plan on the Nov. 4 ballot. A percentage of the projected gaming revenues would go to K-12 education.

“Today is a significant milestone for our citizens committee and the thousands of supporters we have across the state,” said former state Sen. Bob Hagedorn, an Aurora Democrat who is one of the initiative’s backers. The signatures still have to be reviewed by the Department of State.

The plan that is currently labeled Initiative 135 would allow creation of casino-style gaming at the Arapahoe Park racetrack in the metro area and at tracks in Pueblo and Mesa counties in the future.

The committee behind the plan calls itself Coloradans for Better Schools, and the group’s website promises the initiative “will provide more than $100 million in new funds every year to enhance K-12 education in our state – without costing taxpayers a dime.” The money would go into a new account called the K-12 Education Fund.

The state-approved ballot title for the measure estimates $114.5 million in net gaming revenues. Money in the fund would be distributed directly to school districts on a per-pupil basis by the state treasurer. That distribution would bypass the existing school finance system, and the amendment’s language says it’s supposed to be “in addition” to current school funding.

The amendment says the new money would be for “addressing local needs,” including reducing class sizes, acquiring technology, enhancing safety and security and improving facilities.

The text of the amendment doesn’t specify dollar amounts. Rather, it require that 34 percent of adjusted gross proceeds from casinos be distributed to schools. Casinos created by the amendment would be allowed to have up to 2,500 slot machines, plus card games, craps and roulette. They could be open 24 hours a day, if the communities where they’re located agree.

No education advocacy groups currently support the measure. The Colorado Education Association isn’t taking a position, and the Colorado Association of School Executives won’t consider the issue until September but won’t necessarily take a position. The Colorado Association of School Boards also won’t look at the proposal until a September meeting. Some members of that group already are using opposition. Such groups in the past have been reluctant to support such “sin taxes” because of their perceived unreliability as revenue sources.

Get ready for lots of TV ads

The Better Schools group already raised $2.1 million in campaign funds, much of it in-kind contributions from Mile High USA Inc., the company that owns the Arapahoe Park racetrack and that is a subsidiary of Rhode Island-based Twin River Casino. The committee has spent $1.6 million since it registered with the Department of State in March.

The proposal already has sparked fierce opposition from mountain casino interests, whose spending helped defeat a similar measure in 2003. A committee named Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos, also formed in March, has raised $9.1 million, most of it from mountain casino interests, including Isle of Capri Casinos and Ameristar Casino.

Not the first time around the track

This year’s plan isn’t a brand-new idea.

In 2003, racing interests pushed Initiative 33, which would have required creation of gambling facilities with “video lottery terminals” at racetracks. Such terminals are basically slot machines. Tax revenues would have been devoted to tourism promotion and outdoor recreation projects. Mountain casino interests fought the measure, the two sides spent a combined $11.5 million and voters killed the idea, with more than 80 percent voting no.

In 2012 racing interests took their idea to the legislature with House Bill 12-1280, which was based on the controversial legal theory that since the gaming machines at three locations would be overseen by the Colorado Lottery Commission and would be classified as “lottery terminals,” no voter-approved constitutional change was necessary. (The constitution currently limits full casinos to the three historic mining towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, which are overseen by the Colorado Limited Gaming Commission. Two Native American casinos in southwestern Colorado aren’t subject to state jurisdiction.)

That 2012 plan would have funneled tax revenues to community colleges and higher education scholarships, with a bit of money for the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. A slimmed-down version of the bill was killed in a House committee on the last day of the 2012 session.

State law requires 86,105 valid signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot. Initiative proponents typically gather significantly more signatures that required in order to compensate for signatures that are thrown out. For instance, last year backers of Amendment 66, the K-12 tax increase, collected 165,710 signatures, but only 89,820 were ruled valid. The Department of State has 30 days to review petitions after they’re filed.

If sufficient Proposition 135 signatures are verified, it will be assigned a different, permanent number for the ballot.

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