Officials critical of ‘sin tax’ aspect of proposal for school funding | AspenTimes.com

Officials critical of ‘sin tax’ aspect of proposal for school funding

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

Local officials are wary of a Nov. 4 statewide ballot item that promises to bring more money to public school districts by allowing casino operations at Arapahoe Park, a horse racing track in Aurora.

Amendment 68 seeks to expand gambling in the state by permitting casino gambling — slot machines and table games — at horse racetracks in Arapahoe, Mesa and Pueblo counties. Only Arapahoe County currently has a racetrack.

Should the measure pass, the games could be introduced to Arapahoe Park next year, meaning Denver-area gamblers would have a closer gaming destination than the existing casinos in Black Hawk and Central City in Gilpin County and Cripple Creek in Teller County. If racetracks are built in Mesa and Pueblo counties, casino operations will not be permitted there until 2019, the amendment stipulates.

The state Legislature's ballot-information guide estimates that gaming proceeds from Arapahoe Park casino operations would generate $114.5 million in budget year 2016-17, which translates to about $132 per K-12 student annually. However, the guide also predicts that because of the extra competition for gambling dollars, the state would see a $29.5 million decrease in tax proceeds generated by existing casino destinations, revenue for a fund that assists the state's community colleges.

The Aspen Board of Education has not taken an official stand on the issue, according to school board president Sheila Kennedy Wills. Board members briefly discussed the controversial amendment at a meeting in September, she said.

"We haven't taken a position on it, and I don't know if we will take a position on it. If it passes and we get the money, that's great, but the whole sin tax thing is a little problematic for me," Wills said, adding that she was speaking on her own behalf and not the board's.

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She said one downside to the amendment is that it doesn't give local voters in the three counties the option to decide if they want casino gambling. The ballot guide points this out, as well, noting that large commercial attractions such as casino gambling can have negative impacts that increase pressure on government services involving law enforcement and infrastructure. A recent examination by the city of Aurora indicated that more than $60 million in road improvements would be necessary to support the new casino, a cost that the city and Arapahoe County would have to share.

"Amendment 68 doesn't give local communities the option to decide if they want (casino) gambling or not," Wills said.

She also expressed concern that the state fund that helps community colleges is expected to take a hit if the amendment meets voter approval.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, said she's not an advocate for school-funding initiatives that rely on unstable sources such as casinos and marijuana. A recreational marijuana excise tax provides money to the state Department of Education's program to fund capital projects. The tax is expected to provide about $10 million next year for grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, program.

"We're relying on recreational marijuana to build schools through the BEST program, and now we want to rely on gambling money for school operations? Really?" Hamner asked rhetorically, laughing. "To me, it's the responsibility of the citizens of the state and local communities to fund public education. It's an important thing to do. I don't think we should rely solely on gambling and recreational marijuana. I worry that the voters who pass it with good intent to get more money for schools, which is honorable, might think that we've solved our education-funding problem when the problem goes way beyond what Amendment 68 would bring in."

Should the amendment pass — a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll shows 44 percent against it, 33 percent for it and others undecided — local school districts will gladly accept the additional revenue, Hamner said. But whether the revenue projections will be accurate is something of a mystery, she said.

"On one hand, the money would be more than what we have now, but I think there are concerns about whether the casino would even bring in as much as they say," Hamner said.

John Maloy, superintendent of Aspen schools, said the unreliability surrounding potential gambling revenue to help schools is a concern among educators across the state. He also brought up the marijuana excise tax that goes to the BEST program, pointing out that a loophole in state law allows thousands of pounds of marijuana to go untaxed.

"Money coming to education is always a good conversation; we just have to be careful about leaving the idea in people's minds that this is a solution to the funding shortfall," he said.

With gambling revenue, as with marijuana revenue, "you don't know what to expect one year to the next," Maloy said. "But no one's going to turn down the money."

andre@aspentimes.com