TOPEKA, Kan. — Democratic leaders on Tuesday proposed modifying Kansas' 2007 gambling laws to help expand state programs to train unemployed workers, repair infrastructure and help small business.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, said the state could create new jobs by changing existing gambling laws to encourage development of a southeastern Kansas casino and slot machines at three race tracks.
Called Kansas Jobs First, the 14-bill package looks to retrain workers who need new skills. It also would share some gambling money with cities and counties for local infrastructure projects. The package would cost the state $11.1 million in fiscal year 2013 beginning July 1, 2012.
"There's no more important issue, we believe, for the Legislature to spend its time than the issue of creating jobs for the people of Kansas," Hensley said. "Families are still struggling to keep a roof over their head, to pay for their child's doctor bills, to keep their gas tank full. Kansas workers are still hurting."
The state Department of Labor said Tuesday that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Kansas was 6.5 percent in November, down from 6.7 percent in October. More than 91,000 were residents out of work.
Kansas allows for four state-owned casinos under the 2007 law, which also authorized slot machines at three dog racing tracks. One casino is open in Dodge City and another, the Kansas Star, opens the day after Christmas. A third will open in early 2012 in Wyandotte County.
Democrats want to spur development of the fourth zone in southeastern Kansas by lowering the current $200 million investment threshold to $100 million to encourage investors. In addition, Democrats would modify the percentage of revenues that racetrack owners would collect to encourage them to reopen closed facilities.
Democrats would like to use a portion of the gambling revenue to address a backlog of maintenance projects at Kansas universities. The repairs to buildings and other infrastructure are estimated to be close to $900 million, Hensley said.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said legislators would be busy enough this session without reopening the often thorny issue of gambling.
"We welcome all ideas on how to create jobs in Kansas, and look forward to working with all Kansas legislators in the coming session to move our great state forward," Brownback said Tuesday. "Our focus is on the full agenda already proposed with KPERS reform, pro-growth tax policy, Medicaid reform, school finance and water conservation."
Republicans have argued that the state should not rely on gambling revenue to pay its bills and have been reluctant to reopen debate on modifying the law to help southeastern Kansas or the race tracks. Davis said the state should have revisited the issue in 2009 and 2010 when it was trying to close budget gaps caused by the Great Recession.
In 2014 the package would generate $5.4 million for the state primarily through new revenue from the racetracks, Democrats said. That amount increases to $15.4 million in 2015 when a new casino would likely open in the southeastern zone, either in Cherokee or Crawford counties.
"We tried to be very, very conservative in our estimates, especially with the gaming dollars, because it's easy to count those moneys before they arrive in the state bank," Davis said.
Hensley and Davis said though the 14 bills represented Democratic values that they would expect that the measures could find bipartisan support. Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House.
"It is time for partisan politics to take a back seat and for our state Legislature to make job growth our top priority this session," Davis said.
Hensley said too many Kansas residents remain out of work, and the administration and legislators must do more to help retrain workers to give them the skills for what jobs are available. The proposed legislation also would require companies working on a state contract worth $100,000 or more to ensure that at least 70 percent of the workers on the contract are Kansas residents.
Retraining and technical education programs would cost the state $18.6 million in the next fiscal year, increasing by an additional $18.6 million in 2014 and 2015.
Democrats also want new protections for Kansas businesses and workers, including banning the practice of giving preferential treatment to job applicants who are already employed or by conducting credit checks on applicants.
The plan also calls for accelerating some of the projects in the state's 10-year transportation program enacted in 2010. The goal would be to start some of the road and bridge projects early to put more construction workers back on the job. Those projects are funded by special revenue sources, including a 0.4 percent statewide sales tax.