Editorial

Casino amendment

Sunday, July 25, 2004

For most Missourians who go to the polls Aug. 2, the decision on Amendment 1, which would authorize a gambling casino at Rockaway Beach, Mo., will come down to personal viewpoints on whether or not gambling has been good for the state.

Over the past three decades, Missouri has gone from a state whose constitution expressly forbade gambling of any type to one where a state lottery, bingo and casinos are commonplace. And gambling is big business in Missouri, generating millions of dollars for education and millions more for casino owners.

But riverboat gambling has been limited to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Now the town of Rockaway Beach wants a casino on the White River, an easy boat ride up Lake Taneycomo from Branson, which attracts millions of visitors a year to Southwest Missouri.

Approval of Amendment 1 will not guarantee a casino for Rockaway Beach anytime soon. Between legal challenges and the possibly time-consuming process of obtaining a license from the state's gambling commission, it could be years before backers of the Rockaway Beach casino get the go-ahead.

Those backers say a casino is the answer to the economy of Rockaway Beach, which once drew big crowds to Lake Taneycomo. But after nearby Table Rock Lake was constructed, tourism waned in Rockaway Beach and has never come close to a recovery.

Opponents of Amendment 1 says Rockaway Beach has had the same opportunities as Branson -- also on Lake Taneycomo -- to promote economic development but instead is seeking a remedy that could adversely affect the wholesome family atmosphere that has made Branson such a popular destination.

While the pros and cons of gambling certainly are at the center of how voters are likely to mark their ballots regarding Amendment 1, there are some other important issues that are pertinent.

The official ballot language voters will see Aug. 2 relies on concepts that have foundations of Jell-O.

Amendment 1 says half the revenue generated by a Rockaway Beach casino would be used for salary supplements for "high quality teachers" in "priority schools." A bill adopted last year by the Missouri legislature called for the designation of priority schools, but the term was never defined. Moreover, a second law adopted this year calls for the State Board of Education to define "priority schools" after the law takes effect Aug. 28. The language contained in Amendment 1 is based on last year's law, which will cease to exist when the new law takes effect next month. The definition of "high quality teachers" is still unresolved.

The text of the initiative petition signed by Missourians to put the issue on the Aug. 3 ballot also says revenue from the Rockaway Beach casino "shall not be included within the definition of 'total state revenues' ... and shall stand appropriated without legislative action to the State Board of Education."

While this language is not entirely new, it is rare. The only other state revenue that isn't included in total state revenue and doesn't require legislative appropriation in order to be spent is the revenue from user fees (fuel taxes, license fees and the like) for the State Road Fund.

If a casino is authorized by voters somewhere other than on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the floodgates will be opened for similar requests on other rivers such as the Black River at Poplar Bluff, the Current River at Doniphan, the Osage River at Lake of the Ozarks.

How much a state should rely on gambling for essential services is a question every voter should ask. As The Wall Street Journal observed in a recent editorial, gambling revenue in many states has become a fountain of more funding to be wasted by government at the expense of those who can least afford it.

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