Government & Politics

Former KCK Mayor Carol Marinovich lines up against tax change for The Woodlands

Carol Marinovich, former KCK mayor, testifed against a tax change for The Woodlands racetrack at a Kansas committee hearing Wednesday.
Carol Marinovich, former KCK mayor, testifed against a tax change for The Woodlands racetrack at a Kansas committee hearing Wednesday.

A proposal to reopen The Woodlands racetrack as a horse-racing and slot machine venue has drawn the opposition of Carol Marinovich, former Kansas City Kan., mayor.

Marinovich is executive director of Protect the Partnership, a group that supports Hollywood Casino in Wyandotte County and opposes a tax change sought by Phil Ruffin, the billionaire Las Vegas businessman who bought the shuttered racetrack last year.

At a Kansas House committee hearing Wednesday, Marinovich said Ruffin is “trying to drastically change the rules in his favor,” which she said would be bad economic development policy.

“What does that say to the next potential investor?” she said. “Sorry, our word is worth nothing, but please invest anyway.”

Marinovich was a leader in the consolidation of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., governments and in the development of Kansas Speedway and the Village West entertainment and retail complex.

No specific bill was under consideration Wednesday, but the committee’s informational hearing pitted casino supporters against supporters of Ruffin’s “racino” plan.

Ruffin owns The Woodlands and two other Kansas racetracks. He wants a change in the 2007 casino law that allows racetracks to add slot machines. That law sets a higher tax rate for slot machines at racetracks than at casinos, and Ruffin has said that cutting the rate for racetrack slots is needed to reopen The Woodlands as a racino.

Opponents called the proposal a tax break for racetrack owners and unfair to casino operators who invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop their facilities. But supporters said lowering the taxes for racetracks levels the playing field.

Art Hall, a consultant for the Greater Kansas Racing Alliance, said the reopening of Kansas’ racetracks would generate an estimated 4,475 jobs, $291 million in annual wages and $23 million in annual state and local tax revenue.

Adding the slot machines allows the racetracks to be economically viable, he said.

“Economic research shows horse racing and gaming complement each other,” Hall said.

R. Scott Beeler, a lawyer for The Woodlands, told The Star earlier in the week that the effort to reopen the racetrack, an investment of more than $50 million that would add hundreds of jobs, would be a plus for everyone in the area. The Woodlands has been closed since 2008.

“This will do nothing but draw more people to the area,” Beeler said.

But Whitney Damron, representing Kansas Entertainment, said at the committee hearing that The Woodlands’ owner could apply for a gaming license under current law with tax rates that are as good as or better than those found in other states with slots-at-tracks venues.

Kansas Entertainment is the joint venture of Penn Hollywood Kansas and the Kansas Speedway Development Corp. that developed Hollywood Casino in Wyandotte County.

Casino developers in Kansas engaged in an expensive and highly competitive process to develop destination facilities, Damron said, and racetrack owners agreed in 2007 to the tax rates.

Related stories from Kansas City Star