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Dicey Days for River Gambling

Voters in the Show Me State will vote Tuesday on a measure that would allow floating casinos

LAST summer's record-breaking flood proved that Missouri's rivers are powerful agents for change. This spring, although the water has stayed within the banks so far, Missourians are contemplating another way rivers may impact their future.

This time, it's a debate about whether to legalize riverboat gambling that has captivated attention. Next Tuesday, state residents will vote on a constitutional amendment authorizing floating casinos on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

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This is the state's second vote on the issue. In November 1992, 62 percent of voters approved riverboat gambling. But this January, a Missouri Supreme Court ruling invalidated part of the original gambling law.

Casino operators had already spent millions and hired hundreds of workers. So a constitutional amendment was proposed and a new vote scheduled.

Gambling supporters are more concerned this time, however. November 1992 was a presidential election that brought out 78 percent of registered voters. In April elections, less than 30 percent of voters usually go to the polls. Those who do vote are primarily older, relatively affluent citizens who are more likely to oppose gambling. A poll taken earlier this month found that a slim majority of likely voters support the gambling amendment.

Pro-gambling forces are blanketing the state with billboards and television ads selling gambling as the best bet to spur tourism, create jobs, improve schools, and strengthen the economy. Flush with cash from casino operators ready to turn on their slot machines, proponents are expected to spend nearly $3 million on the campaign.

Meanwhile, churches and antigambling groups are waging a quieter campaign. They contend that gaming drains poor residents' resources and increases crime.

Here in the Show Me State, people want evidence. So both sides have offered a parade of studies and experts.

Opponents have offered expert testimony that gambling is not the road to prosperity. ``Gambling does not create jobs, it shifts jobs,'' said an economics professor brought in from the University of Illinois. ``And dollars spent gambling are simply dollars that are not spent somewhere else.''

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One of the casino companies responded by flying in an economics consultant with a study showing gambling does create new jobs. The industry predicts that 20,000 new jobs will result if the amendment passes.

Early this week, officials from Deadwood, S.D., a small mining town that legalized gambling five years ago, arrived to serve as witnesses on both sides of the issue.

Jeffrey Bloomberg, a prosecuting attorney from Deadwood, said felonies and serious misdemeanors have doubled in the town since the casinos opened. ``If you're going to get into gambling, realize it's there to stay,'' he said. ``It pervades your entire social structure.''

Speaking for gambling supporters, hotel-owner Bill Walsh said gambling brought Deadwood back to life by putting 2,100 people to work and shrinking the welfare rolls.

The gambling industry recently unveiled a television ad campaign arguing that Missourians should not stand back and watch money flow to neighboring Illinois and Iowa, where casinos already operate. ``It's time to stand up and fight for Missouri,'' the ad says. The media blitz also includes emotional appeals from laidoff gambling workers pleading with voters to restore their jobs.

Casino-industry hopefuls, including Donald Trump, can already hear the clink of change in their pockets if riverboat gambling migrates to Missouri. The prospect has created a land rush, inflating riverfront land values. Property is now selling for about $1,000 per linear foot along the water.

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