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Civic Skinny

Gambling at Iowa casinos levels off — at a high number.

8/19/2015

Has gambling topped out in Iowa?

It looks like it.

Revenue of the casinos regulated by the state has been more-or-less level for the past seven years.

And earlier this year, the operator of two of the biggest casinos filed for protection under the bankruptcy laws — though that doesn’t seem to have hurt their business.

Still, the money is huge.

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There were 17,902 slot machines at the 19 Iowa casinos that were regulated by the state in the 12 months ended June 30. In that fiscal year, 21,618,923 bettors put $13.5 billion into those machines. That money is money that is counted an average of 11 times — you drop in a quarter, you win three, you drop all three back in, for instance — but, still, $13.5 billion.

That’s almost twice the annual budget of the state of Iowa. Almost two-and-a-half times the budgets of the three state universities and the huge hospital complex in Iowa City.

And that doesn’t count the money dropped into machines at the three Indian-operated casinos in the state — in Tama, Onawa and Sloan.

After factoring out all the duplicated drops and the payouts, the revenues the 19 casinos got from those slot machines in the year totaled $1,274,201,199. Throw in another $141,326,957 from 532 table games, and the casinos had adjusted gross revenue of $1,415,528,156 — that is, revenue calculated after deducting winnings paid out.

The casinos paid city, county and state taxes of about $304 million.

Casino revenue in Iowa peaked in fiscal 2012, at about $1.465 billion, but it’s been fluctuating between about $1.35 billion and $1.45 billion for the past five years. Ten years ago, it was just more than $1 billion.

The growth seems to have stopped.

A new casino has just opened in Jefferson, but gambling people doubt that it will materially increase the gambling take in the state. Jefferson is a small town, and the small-town casinos aren’t major factors. The casinos in Emmetsburg and Clinton — sister facilities of Gary Kirke’s new casino in Jefferson — combined do about a third of the business that Prairie Meadows does in Altoona, for instance. Prairie Meadows and the three Council Bluffs casinos do close to half the gaming business in the state.

Two of those three Council Bluffs casinos are among the 18 debt-heavy Harrah’s casinos included in a controversial bankruptcy petition Caesars Entertainment filed earlier this year. Creditors are alleging financial irregularities at Caesar’s, but the casinos remain open and the two Iowa casinos are still luring crowds. In July, the latest month for which figures are available, Harrah’s and the Horseshoe Casino had combined admissions of about 275,000 people and combined adjusted gross revenue of close to $22 million; the attendance was up about 13 percent from a year earlier, and revenue was down slightly.

Meantime, the website of the two casinos is promising free drinks to gamblers between 6 a.m. and midnight every Friday. …

Jason Powell, the Des Moines man whom police and State Fair officials stopped from preaching outside the Fair gates two years ago, is headed back to federal court.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis last week told District Judge Robert Pratt to look again at his ruling denying Powell’s attempt to get a preliminary injunction to stop the Fair people from silencing him. Pratt had ruled — and the Circuit Court agreed — that Powell’s First Amendment right to preach on the streets didn’t include the right to impede traffic at the Fair. “The sidewalks on which Powell wants to stand are not open, unrestricted thoroughfares for general public passage but rather are situated near entrance gates on the fairgrounds and serve as a congested conduit for ingress and egress,” the Circuit Court ruled. They are a limited public forum, and the emphasis there is on “limited.”

But Powell also said the Fair’s rules were so vague that they violate the Due Process Clause of the Constitution — that he was threatened with arrest for violating rules that were unwritten. But Pratt’s opinion addressed that only tangentially. One of the three appellate judges said the Due Process claim “added nothing” to the case, and he sided with Pratt for not addressing it. But the other two judges told Pratt to consider that claim.

What happens next is unclear, but court procedures make it extremely unlikely the case will get back to the district court while this year’s fair is still on. CV

Steve Berry Quits

Steve Berry has left Prairie Meadows.

The vice president for community affairs was one of Prairie Meadows’ longest-serving employees.

But he’s also one of the area’s best-known singers and actors and emcees, and he has decided to become a full-time entertainer. He’s been a stalwart at the Des Moines Community Playhouse, and he and his alter ego — the creepy lounge lizard Joey Libido — have been entertaining folks at showplaces for more than 20 years.

“He’s a big-time talent and in mid-life is going for it,” Cityview’s Jim Duncan says.

After 20 years, sometimes a person just needs to shake it up,” Berry told Cityview. I’d done everything I could out there, and I needed to do something completely different. CV

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