Moral issues get little play in casino vote

Monday, June 28, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Leading up to each of the three statewide votes related to riverboat casinos that Missourians decided in the 1990s, opponents focused their campaigns on the same basic argument: Gambling is immoral and must be defeated.

That theme failed to resonate with a majority of voters, who endorsed the proposals by comfortable margins.

Missourians will again weigh in on the gambling issue with an Aug. 3 vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow a casino to be built in the Ozarks at Rockaway Beach.

Peter Herschend, a leader of the effort to thwart ratification, said opponents will not repeat the strategy that has consistently failed in the past.

"You will not hear from me the words 'immoral,' 'sinful' or 'not Christian,'" Herschend said. "Those are not winning arguments."

Until the campaign to defeat the measure is launched in the coming weeks, Herschend declined to divulge details on how it will be waged. But he said a key element will be the trustworthiness of the gambling industry. Critics claim the reality of casino operations in Missouri is far different than what the industry promised voters in 1992.

The concept of gambling boats cruising Missouri's two main waterways in a nostalgic 19th-century setting was quickly abandoned. Instead, the largely land-based facilities bear more resemblance to the lavish casinos of Las Vegas, though on a smaller scale.

After the initial vote to authorize riverboat casinos was approved, court rulings prompted follow-up ballot proposals in 1994 and 1998. The first allowed slot machines, and the second provided retroactive permission for the permanently docked "boats in moats" that casino operators had already built.

The Missouri Constitution currently only allows gambling facilities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The latest proposal, which will appear on the ballot as Amendment 1, would add Rockaway Beach, but no other cities along the White River, as a prospective casino location.

Accustomed to casinos

Dr. Rick Althaus, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University, said that although some Missourians have strong feelings regarding the social ills of gambling, the issue is no longer of great concern to most voters, who have become accustomed to casinos and the revenue they generate for the state.

"In situations where economic interests go up against morality interests, a lot of time that economic interest prevails," Althaus said.

It is estimated the new casino, which the Missouri Gaming Commission would still have to approve if Amendment 1 is ratified, would provide as much as $49 million in tax revenue to the state plus another $12.4 million to Rockaway Beach.

The moral argument against casinos, however, could have more of an impact this time around thanks to the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages that voters will decide on the same day. The marriage proposal is expected to spark high turnout among socially conservative voters, a group that might also be inclined to oppose the expansion of legalized gambling.

"It could lead to a higher negative vote than might otherwise be the case," Althaus said.

For Chuck Walters and other residents of Rockaway Beach, the issue isn't about morality but the survival of the tiny community of 577 residents.

Once a thriving resort town, Rockaway Beach's economy was hit hard by changes in management of the White River that drastically lowered the water temperature plus the rise of nearby Branson as a leading tourist destination.

"Nobody knows who we are anymore," Walters said. "Years ago, Rockaway Beach was a very popular place. Things changed."

Walters, who owns a local marina, said other business and community leaders spent years discussing various ways to reinvigorate the town before deciding to pursue a casino.

'We need this'

Walters said the casino alone would create 1,000 jobs, with ancillary developments generating countless more. And unlike most of the low-paying, seasonal jobs that dominate Taney County's tourism-based economy, Walters said the casino would provide year-round employment with health-care benefits and better wages.

"We sincerely feel in our hearts that we need this," Walters said. "It is a good industry and an honest industry that is regulated by the state of Missouri. I personally feel there are 1,000 people counting on me to make this happen."

The potential wage competition for the best workers is one reason Branson business interests are so opposed to a Rockaway Beach casino, Walters said.

Herschend is a member of the Missouri State Board of Education, and his family owns the Silver Dollar City and Celebration City amusement parks and other Branson companies. Herschend said having a casino nearby would tarnish Branson's family-oriented image.

"Rockaway Beach is not the problem," Herschend said. "The expansion of casino gaming throughout the state that Rockaway Beach represents is the problem."

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