DES MOINES — State lawmakers received at least $73,150 in campaign contributions from casino interests last year, according to an IowaPolitics.com analysis of reports filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.
Yet Kirk Uhler, vice president for government relations for U.S. Digital Gaming, a California company that's the main backer of Iowa's legislation to legalize online poker, said his company does not make campaign contributions.
Lawmakers on both sides of this year's proposal to legalize online poker reject the notion that campaign contributions by casino interests are driving this year's debate.
"I don't see any evidence of that," said Iowa Senate State Government Committee Chairman Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who is spearheading the legislation.
Campaign finance reports show Danielson accepted some money last year from gaming interests, although he wasn't the biggest recipient. He received $750 on Dec. 27 from the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing PAC, $500 on Dec. 22 from the Ameristar PAC and $500 on Nov. 4 from the Peninsula Gaming Employee PAC.
The reports also show:
Peninsula Gaming Employee PAC, the political arm of the casino company headquartered in Dubuque, gave $28,000 to about 20 lawmakers last year, including $6,000 to Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs; and $5,000 each to House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha; and House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner.
Ameristar PAC, the political arm of the Ameristar riverboat casino in Council Bluffs, gave a total of $14,700 to three dozen state lawmakers, mostly in $200 or $250 increments. It also gave $2,500 to the Iowa Democratic Party.
Gerald "Gary" Kirke, chairman and founder of Wild Rose Entertainment, which operates casinos in Emmetsburg and Clinton, contributed at least $14,000 last year. That included $10,000 to Gov. Terry Branstad, $2,500 to Upmeyer and $1,500 to Paulsen.
Groups representing horse racing interests also contributed.
Citizens for Preservation of Racing gave $7,750 to about a dozen lawmakers, the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing PAC gave a total of $6,500, mostly to Branstad and legislative leaders; and the Iowa Harness Horsemens Association PAC gave $2,200.
The 2011 campaign contributions fall short of the nearly $100,000 in contributions from groups tied to Iowa's casinos made to lawmakers before the 2004 legislative session, which cleared the way for a significant expansion of gambling in Iowa.
In Illinois, nearly three-fourths of the lawmakers, who voted last year to double the number of state casinos, in the previous 18 months accepted political contributions from the gambling industry, the Chicago Tribune reported last summer. That legislation is on hold.
Iowa campaign finance reports showed no contributions last year by Harrah's PAC, the political arm of Harrah's Entertainment Inc. of Las Vegas, which operates a riverboat casino in Council Bluffs; River PAC, which acts on behalf of riverboat casinos; or the Meskwaki tribe, which runs a casino near Tama that is not regulated by the state.
State Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, a gambling opponent and a member of the House State Government Committee, said he wouldn't be seeing any of that money. But, he said, he has faith in his colleagues in both political parties that they won't let the money coming in push this debate.
"Even to the Democrat that I debate against the most, I would give him the benefit of the doubt that there's not that quid pro quo," Kaufmann said.
But pay-to-play isn't unheard of in Iowa.
Peninsula Gaming Partners, a Dubuque casino company, is accused of illegally donating $25,000 to former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver in 2009, as it was trying to get a license for a proposed casino in Fort Dodge. The donation was made indirectly through Fort Dodge businessman Steve Daniel. It is illegal in Iowa to make, or knowingly receive, a political contribution in another person's name. The trial is set to begin as early as Feb. 27.
Kaufmann said he doesn't believe there's anything on the table this year that unifies all of the gambling interests in the state. He said casinos are hesitant to get involved in the online poker debate, or open the debate on whether to end greyhound racing in Iowa, because they know there could be drawbacks.
"With any issue that you bring up, I think you're going to find that there are going to be gambling interests that may not be against it, but they are sure hesitant to get involved because where is this going to go?" Kaufmann said. "I've seen in a couple of gambling debates we've had here; once you start this, you cannot direct the course of action. It goes where it's going to go."
Lobbyist declaration reports show Ameristar Casino Inc. registered both undecided and in favor of gambling bills last year, which included one that required a study of intrastate Internet poker. Ameristar registered against Senate File 283, which would have extended the state smoking ban to casinos. The bill failed to gain final legislative approval.
IowaPolitics.com was unsuccessful Wednesday in an attempt to learn more about what Ameristar is advocating for or against this session. Ameristar lobbyist Kimberly Haus referred calls to Troy Stremming, Ameristar's senior vice president of government relations and public affairs, who did not return calls.
Danielson said a debate this year over gambling legislation is not his top priority. But, he said, the legislation stems from research showing a need for change.
"If you're assigned to a committee that has responsibility for a policy area, as a citizen legislature, you're supposed to do your homework and come up with thoughtful solutions," Danielson said. "So I can't really speak to the outcome, whether or not we'll actually get it accomplished. But I know I can stand before my voters and Iowans and say, 'I've done a lot of research and study on this issue. Here's a solution.'"