Industry gearing up for battle over initiative

HELENA - A proposed ban on all forms of gambling in Montana is far from qualifying for the November general election ballot, but the gambling industry already has collected $140,255 to fight the measure.

That is 112 times more than supporters of Constitutional Initiative 81 have raised, according to reports filed with the state political practices commissioner.

All of the money raised by Montana Businesses and Citizens Against CI-81 has come from industry trade groups or bars and companies that own the more than 18,000 video poker or keno machines located in taverns across the state.

The Montana Tavern Association is the largest single contributor with $107,645 in cash or staff time. The Montana Coin Machine Operators Association has donated $5,228, the Montana Independent Machine Operators have given $5,120 and the Gaming Industry Association has provided $4,860.

Most of the remaining donations, ranging from $25 to $4,814, have come from individual bars or bingo parlors. Two individuals - a former gambling industry lobbyist and a bar owner - donated a total of $700.

Foes of CI-81 have indicated that they hope to raise more than $3 million to defeat the initiative, if supporters get enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot.

The organization has asked owners of video gambling machines to donate $200 for each machine, the same as the annual licensing fee.

Based on 18,415 licensed machines as of February, that would create a war chest of $3.68 million.

Meanwhile, CI-81 backers, calling themselves A Better Montana Without Gambling, have raised $1,285. Fred and Tom Shellenberg of Livingston have accounted for $900 of that amount.

Tom Shellenberg developed the initiative, which would change the 1972 Montana Constitution that allows the Legislature to determine which types of gambling are legal. CI-81 would outlaw such gambling as video and live-action poker and keno, bingo, sports pools and the Montana Lottery.

As of last week, Shellenberg had the signatures of only 500 registered voters on petitions to put the measure on the ballot. Proponents need at least 39,724 signatures submitted to county election officials by June 23.

Last fiscal year, video gambling machines had gross income of $253.5 million, which generated $38 million in taxes. About $12.5 million of that was given to the state; the rest went to local governments.

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