Casino expansion initiative makes the ballot

Colorado voters will get to decide if they want a full-scale casino in the Denver suburbs – which backers say would raise millions in supplemental funding for school districts.

The secretary of state’s office Monday ruled that backers of what’s now officially Amendment 68 had gathered sufficient valid signatures to put the proposed constitutional change on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The proposal is being pushed by the Rhode Island owners of the Arapahoe Park racetrack in the southeast metro area. If the amendment passes, they would be allowed to open a full casino at the track. The amendment would allow casinos in Mesa and Pueblo counties as well, five years after horse tracks open in those counties.

In an effort to gain public support, the initiative would devote 34 percent of the casino’s adjusted gross proceeds to a new K-12 Education Fund. Arapahoe Park would pay an upfront $25 million into the fund when it opens the casino. Legislative analysts are estimating $114 million in K-12 revenue in 2016-17, the first full budget year of operation.

The revenue would be funneled directly to school districts on a per-pupil basis, bypassing the legislative appropriations process and the state’s school finance formula. Such “sin taxes” have a weak record of delivering promised revenues – see this Chalkbeat Colorado analysis for details.

The amendment probably won’t be backed by mainline education interest groups. Mention of the initiative during a Colorado Association of School Executives convention last week brought chuckles from the crowd.

The committee running the campaign has styled itself Coloradans for Better Schools. Opposing the amendment is a group named Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos, which is backed by casino owners in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, the only places where casinos currently are allowed by the state constitution.

Expect a high-visibility campaign – the pro group already had raised $2.1 million, and opponents have a war chest of $9.1 million. Updated financial disclosure reports are due on Friday.

The pro-amendment group turned in petitions with 136,800 signatures on July 14. The secretary of state’s office, using a sampling technique, estimated 102,180 were valid. Some 86,105 signatures were required.

Read the text of Amendment 68 here.

The only other possible ballot measure of interest to education is what’s temporarily named Proposition 124. It would require school district contract negotiations to be held in public and is being pushed by the Independence Institute, a free-market think-tank. Aug. 4 is the deadline for filing petitions.

Backers of Proposition 49, which would have allowed bans on carrying concealed weapons on college campuses, have withdrawn their proposal.