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Anti-smoking forces push for casino ban in gambling bill

Publication Date: 3/22/2011
  • Author:Rod Boshart/SourceMedia Group News
  • Publication:Eastern Iowa Government

A smoking debate flared up Tuesday during a Senate subcommittee discussion of a gambling bill.

Also, concerns were raised over the amount of direct state oversight that would be involved if the Legislature decides to authorize the creation of an intrastate online poker network and provide a regulatory structure for its implementation, operation and taxation. Senate File 458 envisions an authorized online poker hub operator under the control of the state Racing and Gaming Commission that would contract with state-licensed casinos to operate affiliated online sites within a "closed loop" in Iowa for registered players at least 21 years of age.

Along with legalizing online poker at state-regulated casinos, the proposed legislation would end the requirement that existing state-licensed casinos periodically conduct countywide referendum votes. Another provision sought to resolve a dispute over purse money among the state's various horse breeders and the Altoona racetrack-casino.

During Tuesday's Senate Ways and Means subcommittee meeting, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, offered an amendment seeking to extend the state's workplace smoking ban to include Iowa's 18 state-licensed riverboat and racetrack casinos. He said it was time to end the "double standard" by closing a loophole that has exempted the gambling area of state-licensed casinos from the Clean Air Act that applies to bars, restaurants and virtually all work environments in Iowa.

"This industry is not a sacred cow," said McCoy, who pointed to public-opinion surveys of Iowans that supported his position.

However, Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, who managed S.F. 458 in subcommittee, declined to accept amendments at the subcommittee level, saying the issues could be taken up by the full committee when it considers the issue. He said the smoking amendment, if adopted, likely would be a "poison bill" that would kill the gambling package this session.

"While well-intended, I think it would be the demise of the bill," Dotzler said. "It would end moving this forward because the casinos clearly would oppose that."

Wes Ehrecke of the Iowa Gaming Association -- an umbrella organization for the state-licensed riverboat and racetrack casinos -- said his industry opposed McCoy's amendment, saying smoking bans in other states have cut casino revenues by 25 percent to 30 percent -- which would translate into a $69 million hit to the Iowa industry. He said a smoking ban at state-licensed casinos would put them at a competitive disadvantage with tribal-run casinos operating in Iowa under federal compact that exempts them from certain state laws.

However, tobacco opponents countered that polling data shows that 14 percent of Iowans surveyed indicated they would be more likely to go to a casino if the facility was completely smoke-free, while only four percent said they'd be less likely to patronize a casino if they were unable to smoke while gambling.