- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

DENVER (AP) - Voters will decide whether to allow casino gambling at a horse racetrack in suburban Denver, and two other locations in the future, with the promise that the taxes raised will funnel $114 million a year to public schools.

It’s a high-stakes proposal that has opponents and supporters spending a combined $33 million to get their message out on what would be a state constitutional amendment.

Opponents, who have raised $16.1 million for their campaign, see the question as trying to entice voters with an unreliable source of funding for schools - the target of heavy budget cuts during recessions. They say the proposal, known as Amendment 68, will ultimately hurt mountain casinos because gamblers will gravitate to Arapahoe Park in Aurora if voters approve it. Casinos have spent millions trying to defeat the initiative in a clash with the out-of-state gambling company spearheading the question.

Supporters, however, say the proposal will improve local economies, boost tourism and increase the amount the state allocates to public schools. Their campaign has raised $16.8 million, supported by Rhode Island’s Twin River Worldwide Holdings, which owns the Arapahoe Park.

Opponents see it as benefiting an out-of-state company. Backers insist it will help Colorado.

“We have constantly cut back on our education funding,” said Becky Brooks, a spokeswoman for Arapahoe Park. “The $114 million that this would put into education is not going to solve the problem, but it’s a first step.”

Last year, voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to raise income taxes to add $1 billion in funding for public schools. Brooks said that was a signal that voters are unwilling to raise their own taxes for education.

“So let’s be creative about this,” she said. “And this is a way of addressing that.”

During the Great Recession, public schools funding was cut by about $1 billion.

This is not the first time a ballot proposal has been linked to school funding to help it pass. Voters who legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012 did so under the assumption that about $40 million in taxes would go to schools every year. The actual amount is nowhere near the projection.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the organization opposes the measure because its members don’t believe it’s an answer to school funding. They also see it as going against what teachers tell students.

“If we were to take this money, it would be contradictory to the message we’re trying to send students that gambling and drug use is not something they should pursue,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, one of Colorado’s budget writers, said the proposal would put the state on a “dangerous trend” of taxpayers shifting the responsibility of funding schools to others with the message of “tax the other guy, tax the sinner.”

“That’s the deceptively enticing thing about this measure,” he said. “It really invites citizens to walk away from our shared commitment to public education.”

If the initiative passes, the first racetrack allowed to have a casino would be Arapahoe Park. Pueblo and Mesa counties have to wait because they don’t currently have racetracks, and the initiative says racetracks must be operational for at least five years before allowing casino gambling.

The Pueblo Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce support the initiative. While Colorado’s economy is improving, Mesa and Pueblo counties have lagged behind.

“At the end of the day we were really interested in the potential for what it could do for our local economy,” said Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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