State House kills Butte gambling proposal


HELENA - A $2 billion Butte gambling and entertainment project dubbed ''Destination Montana'' ran into stiff criticism in the House Tuesday, falling on a 59-41 vote.

The sprawling development promised up to 40 music halls, 10 casinos, a theme park, 15,000 hotel rooms, three golf courses, a sports stadium and sports training centers.

But legislative opponents of House Bill 757, which would have allowed the gambling, said the ''pie-in-the-sky'' project just asked too much by seeking wide-open casino games.

And its promise of more than $100 million in new tax revenue each year, 24,000 jobs and millions of new tourists to Montana just seemed too good to be true, they said.

''Maybe we should call this project desperation Montana,'' said Rep. Rosie Buzzas, D-Missoula.

Project backers said they didn't know what their next move would be, or if they would seek another vote on the matter before Thursday's deadline for tax bills.

''I'm almost incredulous at the fact that policy makers of the state could turn their backs on a project that creates tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues for the state - especially at a time that the state sorely needs both the jobs and the revenue,'' said Evan Barrett, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp.

The developers had promised about $32 million next year in ''impact fees'' to help the Legislature with a budget deficit. HB 757 also placed special gaming, hotel and ticket taxes on the operation - enough to raise nearly $200 million in annual taxes once the project got underway, supporters said.

The measure earmarked a portion of the tax money to be shared with other Montana towns.

Its sponsor, Rep. John Witt, R-Carter, said the legislation included a ''self-destruct'' mechanism if developers haven't made significant progress on the project by 2005.

Supporters said the state was missing a big opportunity to become a top tourist destination.

''This is a good way to generate revenue for everybody,'' said Rep. Steve Gallus, D-Butte. ''This is an answer to our problems.''

The Butte delegation tried to calm fears that they said had been blown out of proportion by gambling foes, and said killing the bill kills one of the biggest projects ever proposed for the state.

''I know one thing, if this bill dies here today on the house floor so does this project,'' Gallus said.

But doubters said the project would need to get millions of visitors to lose about $300 each gambling in order to meet its revenue estimates.

''Let's think a little bit about what were doing here,'' said Rep. Dave Kasten, R-Brockway. ''It sounds too good to be true, and it probably is.''

Opponents also worried the change in law would have allowed wide-open gambling on Indian reservations. This, along with part of the proposal that would allow more types of video gambling machines across the state, would lead to a big gambling problem in Montana, they said.

''Are we as Montanans willing to take jobs at any price?'' Buzzas said. ''We know the cost to society. We know the social ills. We know about the rises in crime rates when gambling comes.''


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