Rolling the dice with the initiative process
It was one of those surrealistic scenes that make a man wonder if he really saw what he thinks he just saw. It was October of 1991, and photographer Mark Fox and I had driven to Central City to witness the first moments of legalized “gaming” (a seemingly innocuous synonym of “gambling”) in almost a century. On the roof of one of Central City’s old historic buildings ” the very kind of building that the rebirthed gambling, er, gaming industry was designed ” at least on the surface ” to help restore, one of those hopelessly obnoxious Denver drive-time radio tandems was doing a live broadcast that included a final countdown that ended the prohibition on people voluntary donating their hard-earned cash to Hermes, Fortuna and, surely, Vegas-related mobsters.
As the final seconds ticked down (the casinos were set to legally throw open their doors to the gaming-starved masses at 7 a.m.), the radio “personalities” (I don’t remember their names, but it was one of those puerile verbal tag-teams like “Nimrod and Numbnuts”) dumped several large bags of quarters from the rooftop to the street below. And, right there before our very eyes, literally hundreds of people started diving face first onto the street in hopes getting their mitts on some of that silver. Remember, now, we’re not talking about people debasing themselves in hopes of retrieving hundred dollar bills or anything. It was quarters, and, given the limited supply of coins dumped onto the street and the number of people diving after them, the highest hopes for personal enrichment topped out at maybe 75 cents. I remember turning to Mark and commenting upon the astounding indignity of the entire scene And my standards aren’t that high). But for better or worse, legal gaming was back in Colorado for the first time since the turn of the century.
Naturally, even though gambling had been illegal in the Centennial State since the McKinley administration, the surreptitious shuffling of cards still transpired. When I lived in Grand Lake, I heard old timers talking about how certain local taverns had slot machines and organized poker games well into the 1960s. The gaming took place in back rooms, I was told, and there was always a lookout posted to keep an eye peeled for The Law, though other old-timers told me The Law was always in on the deal.
Gambling is as much a part of Western lore as bank robbers, crazy prospectors and cowboys and Indians. Were a person to rely totally upon popular media renditions of days of yore, one would be inclined to wonder how industry of any kind was conducted, given the fact that the entire population of what is now the Mountain Time Zone was perpetually playing cards and shooting craps.
The run-up to decriminalized gambling occurred in the early-to-mid-’80s, when times were not so good economically in Colorado. Charities were looking for any vehicle to increase their diminishing coffers. So you started seeing a preponderance of casino night-type events. It wasn’t long, though, before the state government got involved. Loathe to step on the toes of charities, state regulators determined that casino nights could legally operate as long as there was not even the appearance of single-play winnings, i.e. that after, say, a hand of blackjack, you could directly cash out whatever you just then won. As long as there was some sort of aggregation of winnings, where, say, at the end of the night, if you “won,” 1,000 “dollars,” you got a trip to Vegas, then it was OK. Well, at that point, the cat was out of Pandora’s Box.
In 1985, the first statewide attempt to legalize gambling in Colorado was put to the state’s electorate. It was a Constitutional initiative that called for gambling to be legal only in Pueblo County, and the tax revenues skimmed off by the state were to be dedicated solely to the medically indigent and public schools. (That is one constant theme of almost every subsequent attempt to legalize gambling in Colorado, that the proponents name some worthy cause as the recipient of the tax revenue. That way, if you’re voting against the measure, you’re voting against the medically indigent, you self-centered scoundrel!) That initiative was thumped at the polls, 819,533-406,989.
The next attempt to legalize gambling in Colorado was the only one that passed; the 1990 initiative that allowed limited-stakes gaming in three municipalities and those three only: Central City and Black Hawk, both in Gilpin County, and Cripple Creek, in Teller County. The lions’ share of the tax revenues generated by gaming in those towns was supposed to go to historic preservation. Thing is, the initiative itself was worded so ambiguously that within a few years, the monster casinos that now define Black Hawk somehow fell under an acceptable definition of “historic preservation.” Within a few years, elected officials in Black Hawk were using gaming proceeds to renovate their own houses. And rumors of Vegas-mob infiltration of Colorado’s gaming industry started wafting throughout the state almost immediately.
It was not long before other gaming-related initiatives started appearing on statewide ballots. In 1992, there were four attempts to expand the areas where gambling was allowed, and one other gambling-related amendment that stated that, even if the people of Colorado voted in favor of allowing gambling in a certain town, it could not take place without a supportive vote from the people of that town. That at least partially mitigated the ability of out-of-towners to force gambling onto a population that did not want it. That initiative passed 1,075,521-339,521, despite aggressive opposition from the gaming industry itself. That marked the last time a gaming-related initiative passed in Colorado. Three other proposed initiatives in 1992 ” which would have allowed gaming in a total of 32 additional towns and counties, were all thumped by 2-1 margins.
In 1994, there was an attempt to allow slot machines in airports and limited-stakes gambling in Manitou Springs. It was defeated ” get this ” 1,007,557-90,936. That is an ass-kicking by anyone’s standards.
In 1996, another proposed statewide initiative, this one to allow gambling in Trinidad, was jungle-smacked 958,991-440,173.
On 2003, an attempt to allow video gaming terminals at racetrack locations ” facilities that were already not exactly churches ” was soundly thrashed, 766,893-180,959.
In a couple weeks, Coloradans once again face a gaming-related statewide ballot initiative at the polls, this one to change the most-fundamental component of the 1990 initiative that allowed gambling in Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek: limited stakes. The 2008 initiative calls for an increase in the maximum allowable bet from $5 to $100. It would also allow casinos to stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pro-gaming forces argue that, since 1991, gaming-based competition has expanded so significantly that Colorado, with its limited stakes and its limited casino hours of operation, is at a competitive disadvantage, since gambling is now legal in all but a few states.
If history is any indication, this initiative is destined for the electoral toilet bowl, same as every pro-gaming initiative since 1990. Time and time again, Coloradans have looked toward the cultural holocaust that has transpired in Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek and said, “Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.”
I should note that the Southern Ute tribe, in the southwest part of the state, also has gambling that is legal under federal tribal sovereignty laws and thus exempt from state oversight and regulations.
M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at firstname.lastname@example.org.