Warren County rejects casino, Johnson County rejects justice center (updated)

While politics-watchers across the country were focused on creepy adulterer Mark Sanford’s victory in the special election to represent South Carolina’s first Congressional district, two important local elections took place in Iowa yesterday.

Warren County voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed casino for Norwalk (just south of Des Moines). A simple majority was needed to approve the gambling referendum, but “no” carried the day with 60 percent support, 6,545 votes to 4,327. Click here (pdf) for unofficial precinct-level results. I know many Democrats backed the Norwalk casino, and local officials said it would help create jobs and reverse some of the economic “drain” from Warren County to Polk County. If I lived in Warren County, I would have voted no for the same reasons discussed in this post on the proposed Cedar Rapids casino. After the jump I’ve posted excerpts from a compelling commentary by Tom Coates, president of Consumer Credit of Des Moines. Meta observation: this will probably be the only time Bleeding Heartland ever links approvingly to the FAMiLY Leader’s website.

Johnson County voters rejected a proposed bond issue to build a new justice center. The proposal was revised somewhat after the previous referendum failed in November 2012. Although a 54 percent majority voted yes yesterday, a 60 percent super-majority is needed for bond issues to pass. Unofficial precinct-level results show 7,394 yes votes to 6,226 no. Percentage-wise, that’s a bigger loss for the yes camp than the last referendum (when 56 percent voted yes), even though some prominent voices flipped from “no” to “yes” this time around. The total number of votes cast was nearly four times times higher last November, when the justice center was on the presidential election ballot.

John Deeth has blogged extensively on this issue, and I think he made a compelling case for the justice center. Preventing Johnson County from building an adequate facility to house accused criminals is not an effective way to protest Iowa City police practices. There were strange bedfellows in the “no” camp: “People’s Republic” lefties and self-styled taxpayer advocacy groups. But I suppose that’s no more strange than the FAMiLY Leader and I agreeing on the Warren County gambling referendum.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission would have approved a casino license for Norwalk. The project would have drawn most of its business from the customer base for existing casinos in Altoona and Osceola.

Excerpt from the Norwalk casino editorial by Tom Coates, which also appeared in the Des Moines Register:

During the recent debate over a proposed casino in Warren County and Norwalk, I find a real need to clarify the business model of the “convenience casino”. This model is contrasted with the “tourist model” employed by Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The tourist model brings the majority of its’ revenues from patrons outside their immediate geographical area. The convenience model employed by all 21 Iowa casinos relies almost entirely on revenues derived from natives who live within the 40 mile radius referred to as their feeder market. Approximately 80% comes from the feeder market.

The reason that this is important to understand is that this 80% represents a cannibalization of existing businesses of all types. The money spent on gambling would otherwise have gone to the purchase of goods and services already offered in the community.

If the effect stopped there it wouldn’t be a huge concern, but it doesn’t. To more fully understand the convenience casino business model, you must look at what percentage of their handle comes from addicted gamblers. Studies by various researchers have shown 40-50% come from problem and pathological gamblers. The emergence of the addicted gambler is shown by Iowa’s timeline prevalence study done in 1989 and again in 1995 after the arrival of casinos. Iowa went from 1.7% of population being problem or pathological to 5.4%. This increase appeared most acutely within the boundaries of the feeder market. Further, the closer the patron resides to the casino, the more likely the occurrence of the addictions.

From 1994 until 2000, my company administered the Iowa gambling hotline, 1-800-BETS-OFF. We witnessed the crisis calls increase from dozens to hundreds a month. These calls were most prevalent in the immediate surrounding areas of casinos.

UPDATE: According to the Des Moines Register,

According to the Warren County auditor’s office, Tuesday’s turnout was “higher than normal” for a Warren County special election, with nearly 23 percent of Warren’s 33,000 registered voters heading to the polls. Another 10 percent cast absentee ballots, for a total turnout approximating one-third.

Tuesday’s vote capped a hard-fought election dominated by yard signs, Web videos and direct mailings designed by consultants.

Throughout the campaign, casino backers emphasized the $4.5 million that would be available to schools, communities and local nonprofits. Opponents argued that the societal impacts, such as increased gambling addiction, divorce and bankruptcies, would outweigh any potential benefits a gaming establishment could bring.

Campaign finance numbers show Wild Rose contributed $260,000 to Warren County Citizens for Good Jobs, the campaign committee advocating for the gaming referendum. No Casino Warren, the group speaking out against the proposal, raised nearly $16,000 to fight it. (Opponents used a graphic on their website that accented the last two letters of “casino.”)

The gambling measure failed everywhere but in White Breast, a precinct in the southeast corner of the county that on Tuesday was responsible for 147 votes.

Todd Dorman noted in his blog at the Cedar Radids Gazette,

I’m no expert on Warren County politics, but I was surprised by the margin. I figured it would pass. It’s almost as if last night’s result was the exact opposite of Linn County’s March referendum, where gambling was victorious 61-39.

In Warren County, a pile of outside casino money, in this case from from Wild Rose Entertainment, was bet on a yes vote, unlike the $750,000 spent here by existing casinos hoping to defeat gaming.  Warren County opponents were led and funded locally, for the most part.

In Linn County, local opponents couldn’t distance themselves from a pricey campaign funded almost entirely by those outside casinos. The yes campaign here also was pricey,at $1.5 million, but the bills were paid by local investors.

Warren County has seen rapid exurban growth during the past decade, and socially conservative Republicans have done increasingly well there. In fact, Warren was one of the best counties for Bob Vander Plaats in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, where Terry Branstad carried most of the state. Even though the Iowa House Republicans conceded House district 26 (covering most of Warren County) last fall, Democrat Scott Ourth defeated way-out-there Republican Steve McCoy by only about 52 percent to 48 percent.

The latest county-level voter registration figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office show that Linn County has 49,666 active registered Democrats, 37,948 Republicans, and 52,303 no-party voters.

Warren County has 9,802 active registered Democrats, 10,524 Republicans, and 10,628 no-party voters.

Speaking of strange bedfellows, Dorman pointed out last week,

In Linn County, Link Strategies was the strategic brains behind Just Say No Casino. In Warren County, Link’s outfit is reportedly working for Vote Yes, aka Warren County Citizens for Good Jobs.

Also, the key proponent of the “yes” side in Warren County is a big Republican donor, Gary Kirke. Link Strategies generally works for Democratic clients.

  • Playing a bad hand

    I was able to see the Ankeny casino issue play out first hand and the biggest issue was how unprepared Wild Rose was to answer basic questions and have a coherent strategy for convincing skeptics.  $4.5 million annually means nothing to average citizens that don’t understand how it compares to the overall size of the cities and schools budgets.  If they would have said that we would be able to build three new schools or a recreation center over the next ten or twenty years without additional taxes, that would have addressed some serious community needs. But they kept it vague and the proposal was DOA.  I’m not advocating for the casino, just pointing out messaging flaws that could have been an easy fix.

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