Judge to make ruling on proposal that would repeal gambling limits

Friday, June 27, 2008 | 3:53 p.m. CDT; updated 12:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A state judge is considering whether the ballot summary for a casino-backed initiative could mislead Missouri voters or whether opponents are merely nitpicking in court to prevent a vote.

The ballot proposal would repeal Missouri’s unique law limiting gamblers to losing no more than $500 in two hours. It also would cap the number of casinos in the state and raise their taxes slightly.

The net effect is that gamblers are expected to bet more and lose more, that casinos are projected to rake in hundreds of millions of more dollars and that — as a result — schools and other government programs also would reap more tax revenues.

In court Friday, opponents argued that the secretary of state’s ballot summary for the initiative could mislead voters and should be stricken or changed. If Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce were to grant that, the measure would effectively be blocked from the November ballot, because it’s too late for supporters to gather new signatures under a revised petition.

A group financed by Ameristar and Pinnacle casinos submitted petition signatures in May to Secretary of State Robin Carnahan’s office. Local election officials are in the process of verifying whether they have enough signatures from registered voters. Carnahan has until late July to approve initiatives to appear on the November ballot.

A lawsuit by two St. Louis County residents takes issue with the wording Carnahan used to summarize the casino proposal.

For example, Carnahan’s description says the measure would “prohibit any future loss limits.” But the lawsuit contends it would be more accurate to say it would “prohibit the Missouri Gaming Commission from regulating loss limits.”

The lawsuit also seeks to strike wording noting the new tax revenues would be placed in the “Schools First Elementary and Secondary Education Improvement Fund.” Although that’s the official title of the fund created by the initiative, opponents argue the wording implies the money actually will result in improved schools and thus could unfairly cause some people to support the measure.

Attorney Audrey McIntosh, who represents the plaintiffs, said that the ballot summary should state not only that the measure would repeal gamblers’ loss limits, but also that those limits originally were approved by voters in 1992. Her court briefs, however, offer no alternative wording to the judge on that point.

Assistant Attorney General Heidi Vollet, representing Carnahan, said the opponents’ merely “have nitpicked a few things.” To suggest Carnahan should have provided more detail or picked different words does not make her ballot summary legally unfair or insufficient, she said.

“They really have to show something terribly wrong with the language in order to succeed,” Vollet said.

The judge issued no ruling after Friday’s hearing. She asked attorneys to submit sample court orders by July 8.

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