The 2006 Iowa legislative session was consumed with debate about the fate of the Iowa Lottery’s TouchPlay machines. But what’s ahead for 2007? That issue still looms since TouchPlay owners and operators have sued the state for pulling the plug on the machines, but most legislative leaders say they’re not expecting a debate about gambling in 2007.
Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says that means no direct action from lawmakers in response to the cities of Fort Dodge, Ottumwa and Tama which are hoping to land a casino. “I don’t think the legislature has ever kind of stepped up to the plate and said ‘We want these three casinos approved.’ We’ve left that up to a commission. We think that makes some sense,” Gronstal says. “I think it’s exceedingly unlikely that we’ll have a debate on gambling.”
House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines agrees. “I think that the mood of the legislature is to kind of hold the line on gambling,” McCarthy says. Senate Republican Leader Mary Lundby of Marion isn’t so sure there won’t be some action on gambling.
“Every year I say we won’t have a gambling debate and the leaders on the other side say we won’t have a gambling debate, but every year gambling creeps into the debate process,” Lundby says. “Some of it depends on how quickly the (TouchPlay) lawsuit is decided, I think. Some of it depends on the activities of the communities. I know Fort Dodge, Ottumwa and now Tama have had referendums and want facilities…How well are the new facilities doing? It’s my understanding they’re not doing as well as predicted.”
Governor-elect Chet Culver says it’s up to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission as to whether Fort Dodge, Ottumwa and Tama get new casinos. “I have been on the record saying if and when there is an expansion of gambling…that Fort Dodge and Ottumwa should be first in line because they have gone through the process,” Culver says. Both cities made pitches to state gambling regulators but sites in other locales were chosen instead.
Just before the November election Jim Nussle, the Republican candidate for governor, accused Culver of harboring a “secret plan” to bring back TouchPlay. House Democratic Leader McCarthy says that is not going to happen. “Machines in grocery stores and gas stations. People going to get a head of lettuce and there’s a machine beeping 20 feet away from them. That’s not coming back,” McCarthy says. “The will of the legislature, I think, is very clear. TouchPlay is not coming back.”
But there is a chance legislators might pass a bill that would pay TouchPlay owners and operators for their losses to settle the lawsuits filed against the state out-of-court. McCarthy says legislators will wait for the attorney general’s advice. “As an attorney, I think the prudent thing to say is when there’s litigation…listen to the legal advice that you’re given,” McCarthy says. “I intend to be in close contact with Attorney General Miller to determine what he believes is the best course for the state to pursue.”
House Republican Leader Christopher Rants doubts the Democrats’ word. “There’s no secret deal…so I’m going to take them at their word. I will be shocked and amazed if they advance any legislation at all that has to do with TouchPlay,” Rants says. “Well, maybe I won’t be too shocked, after all they’re bringing up ideas they didn’t campaign on so maybe this will be part of it too.”
Gronstal, the Democratic Leader in the Senate, says there is no secret plan and it’s up to the attorney general to decide the state’s legal strategy. “What, essentially, any good client would do is listen to their attorney’s advice and make a judgment as to whether to take that,” Gronstal says. “We don’t know what advice he’s going to give us but we’ll let him proceed.”