- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s gambling regulators may consider the economic impact of proposed casinos on existing ones when deciding new casino license applications, the Iowa Supreme Court said Friday.

The decision agrees with a district court judge’s ruling in a challenge to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission’s practice of denying a license if it determines it would take too much money away from operating casinos in nearby counties.

Cedar Rapids attorney Eugene Kopecky sued the commission in 2015 claiming Iowa’s gambling law directs the commission to base its decision on what’s in the best interest of Iowa and an additional casino would create hundreds of jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue.

Kopecky argued to the court that once voters of a county approve a casino referendum they should get a license. That prompted Justice Thomas Waterman to ask during arguments on Feb. 15 if that meant Iowa could have a casino in each of its 99 counties if all voted for one.

“You could have,” Kopecky responded.

The court opinion focused on the language of the law which says the commission may issue one or more licenses in counties that approve a referendum.

Justice David Wiggins, writing the opinion for the court, said that means the commission has no duty to issue a license but has the choice based on criteria it deems important.

Considering economic impact on other casinos is not beyond the commission’s authority under the law, he wrote.

“In order to ensure the continued economic development of our state, the legislature and the commission deem it important to make sure an existing gambling facility remains viable when the commission issues a new license,” the court said.

Kopecky disagreed.

“I just think it’s contrary to the statute and does not really respect the citizens of the state,” he said.

Brian Ohorilko, the state’s gambling administrator said the commission was comfortable with its decision but is pleased the court considered the case and affirmed its process.

Kopecky, a retired county prosecutor considered applying for a casino license in 1990 but Linn County voters in a 2003 referendum decided against a casino. A second referendum in 2013 passed with 60 percent voter approval.

The commission denied casino proposals from two groups after reviewing a consultant’s market analysis that showed a Cedar Rapids casino would cannibalize profits from existing ones.

The commission has before it three applications for Cedar Rapids. Two backed by executives behind casinos in Sioux City and Dubuque. They’ve proposed a $169 million project including a casino, restaurants, a bar and a 400-seat events center and a smaller $106 million dollar development with a casino, deli and a bar.

The third application is from Wild Rose Casinos for a smaller $40 million casino-only project. The company operates casinos in Emmetsburg, Clinton and Jefferson.

Its president had concerns about the impact on existing casinos had the court agreed with Kopecky.

“That would have been a game changer in my mind,” said Tom Timmons. “I look at some of our rural places and I just don’t know how that would have worked.”

The commission plans to have another gambling market analysis done this year and likely will make a decision on a Cedar Rapids casino in November.

Iowa has 19 regulated casinos that drew 21.6 million visitors last year, a slight increase from the year before.

Gross revenue from slot machines and table games grew to $1.44 billion in 2016, up 1.4 percent and the industry generated $317 million in taxes. The state also has three Native American casinos.

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Follow David Pitt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/davepitt

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