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Proposal would allow casinos at Mich. horse tracks

LANSING, Mich. – Another showdown is brewing over whether Michigan horse racetracks should be allowed to open casinos in an effort to revive their struggling businesses.

A group called Racing to Save Michigan wants voters to decide the issue in November 2010. The group took a small step in that direction Oct. 14 in front of a state elections board.

The Board of State Canvassers unanimously approved the form of a petition the group plans to circulate within the next six weeks. Supporters would have to collect more than 380,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment would allow state regulators to license up to eight new casinos. Five of them would be at Michigan’s horse tracks.

Michigan now has 22 operating casinos with a 23rd under construction.

A 2004 voter-approved change in Michigan law requires voters to approve most gambling expansions at both the state and local levels unless it involves Detroit’s three casinos or tribe-owned operations. The measure – backed by those existing casinos – thwarted an attempt by horse track owners to install slot machines at their facilities.

Horse track owners said the change in the state constitution leaves them with little option but to ask voters to approve their plans for full casinos.

“I don’t think there is any other route,” said Dan Adkins, vice president of Hazel Park Harness Raceway.

Detroit and tribal casinos spent nearly $20 million on the 2004 campaign protecting their turf. Horse track owners and their supporters spent almost half that amount.

Representatives of existing casinos say the new proposal would end or circumvent the provision in the 2004 amendment that requires a local vote for a gambling expansion.

“I think the coalition will probably revive itself and get active again,” said Tom Shields, a spokesman for MotorCity Casino and a few Michigan tribal casinos. “If they spent $20 million to pass this proposal in 2004, they’ll certainly spend whatever it takes to defend it in 2010.”

Business has declined at horse tracks in Michigan and other states over recent decades. Horse track owners blame much of the decline on the growth of other gambling operations, including casinos and lotteries.

Michigan horse race attendance fell from more than 2.5 million in 1992 to about 1.1 million in 2008.

The live racing schedule at Michigan’s five major tracks was cut back this year because state support was withdrawn during the continuing budget crunch.

Michigan’s major horse tracks are Pinnacle Race Course [pinnacleracecourse .com /] in New Boston, Hazel Park Harness Raceway, Mount Pleasant Meadows, Northville Downs and Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek.

The state could auction off the other three licenses.

The casinos would pay a wagering tax equaling 30 percent of their adjusted gross receipts.

Also Oct. 14, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the agriculture budget bill, but only after vetoing money for horse racing and the racing commissioner’s office.

The bill would have authorized using casino revenues to subsidize horse racing, which she didn’t agree with, the governor said in a statement. She would support restoring the money if it comes from revenue generated by the horse racing industry.

Granholm issued an executive order last week transferring the racing commissioner’s office from the Department of Agriculture to the Michigan Gaming Control Board [www .michigan.gov] and giving her the right to appoint the agriculture director.

The executive order takes effect unless rejected by both legislative chambers within 60 days. GOP Sen. Wayne Kuipers of Holland is introducing a resolution opposing the order.

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