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Politics and Government

The faith-based and environmental opposition to Colorado’s Proposition DD makes for strange company

The 2019 ballot question about whether to legalize sports betting is drawing critics, but not a well-organized opposition

Fans watch the Colorado Rockies take on the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field on July 29, 2019. If Proposition DD is approved at the November ballot, it would allow fans to place bets on Colorado sports teams. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The drive to legalize sports betting in Colorado united Republicans and Democrats at the state Capitol, and similarly, the opposition to Proposition DD is bringing together two disparate groups of critics.

The November ballot question is drawing criticism from religious conservatives who label gambling as a sin and a faction of the environmental community concerned about where the revenues will go.

“Proposition DD is an effort to expand gambling in the state of Colorado,” wrote the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. “Gambling is sinful, it disproportionately harms the poor, is rooted in the sin of greed, and it leads to the breakdown of the family.”

Colorado Voter Guide 2019: What you need to know about propositions CC and DD before you vote

On the other end, the measure “is a troubling ballot measure that essentially pens a blank check to water managers to fund river-killing projects while exploiting vulnerable people in the process,” said Jen Pelz, the wild-rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians, an environmental organization. “This is socially and environmentally irresponsible, and we stand firmly against it.”

The blunt assessments call out the Republican and Democratic leaders who authored the ballot measure and led the push at the General Assembly to approve it. Only 14 of the state’s 100 lawmakers voted against the legislation that put it on the ballot.

The measure would make Colorado the 20th state to legalize sports betting and would generate as much as $29 million in taxes on casino proceeds, although other fiscal projections suggest it would generate far less in the initial years. The first dollars go toward regulation and mental health services, with the remaining balance – the vast majority of the money – earmarked for the state’s water plan, which is focused on conservation efforts and storage options.

So far, the opposition is not well organized –– especially when compared to the supporters.

The Yes on Proposition DD committee raised $2.5 million through Tuesday, mostly from casino and gambling interests, including $1 million from the New York-based FanDuel and $500,000 from Boston-based DraftKings –– two online sports-betting platforms that stand to make big money if the measure is approved. 

Much of the money is being spent on TV, radio and digital advertising linked to firms with ties to Republicans, according to campaign-finance records.

No such big-dollar committee exists for opponents to get the word to voters. The only registered opposition committee is Coloradans for Climate Justice, a small-scale committee that plans to spend less than $5,000 on the election.

MORE: Prop. DD explained: What sports gambling would mean in Colorado and how much (or little) it would generate

Christian groups tap into faith to voice objections to Prop. DD

Jeff Hunt, the Centennial Institute’s director, said the faith-based message is a missing one in much of today’s political dialogue. 

“We felt that it was necessary to resurrect this notion within Christianity, especially Christian public policy that issues like gambling are harmful to the poor,” he said in an interview.

In the email to supporters, the institute reminded them about the late Rev. Billy Graham’s stance on gambling, pulling material directly from the latter’s evangelical association. Graham, citing the Bible, is quoted as saying that “money is given to us by God to be used for good, not evil. Anyone seeking to do God’s will should not be involved in gambling.”

But at the same time, Hunt acknowledged it’s hard to get pastors in Colorado to talk about policy from the pulpit. “When you look at a larger list of priorities, I don’t think it’s a top priority,” he said, adding that he hopes more voices speak out.

Bruce Hausknecht, legal analyst for Focus on the Family, said his organization has opposed gambling of all types for years. “Gambling’s effects on the family can be devastating. It promotes poverty, crime and family breakdown, including divorce,” he said in a statement. “Proposition DD offers false promises that disguise the harsh reality behind gambling.”

But David Bessey, who works for a Christian-based addiction treatment center in Denver, says legalizing sports betting won’t encourage more gambling. 

“If the addict wants to gamble, they are going to gamble, and that’s just the pill that’s tough to swallow,” he said. 

A small portion of the funds generated from the Proposition DD tax, approximately $130,000, would go toward addiction services, specifically a hotline and gambling addiction prevention programs. 

House Republican leader Patrick Neville, one of the sponsors of the referendum, said he doesn’t see betting as contradictory to his faith.

“I don’t think it’s directly a sin,” he said. “Like anything, I think it’s one of these things that can consume people, and in those cases, it can quickly become sin.”

“I think it’s already happening,” he added, pointing to overseas sports-betting operations, “so, at this point, our best way of doing this is legalizing it and regulate it in a responsible manner.”

Opponents within the environmental community split from supporters

On the environmental side, the argument sounds much different. The environmental community is split on the issue, but those with objections point to how the money would get spent. 

The water plan –– developed under then-Gov. John Hickenlooper –– is designed to address Colorado’s water needs as it continues to grow, whether for agricultural use or drinking. It is estimated to cost between $20 and $40 billion.

When it comes to Prop. DD, some environmentalists worry that the language is too vague, saying that the money generated may allow more water to be pulled from the Western Slope’s heavily diverted rivers. They also worry that it may help fund the construction of more dams to store water. And that by taxing sports betting, water utilities are left off the hook for the damage that they cause to rivers and, subsequently, the price tag attached to it.

Other environmental advocates believe the tax revenue from gambling is needed to fund a vital priority that often is not getting adequate resources in the state’s annual budget process. A number of outdoor groups and other prominent groups are backing the measure.

“DD is an important down payment to get the Colorado Water Plan funded, and the organization will work closely to ensure that the funds are used appropriately,” said Josh Kuhn at Conservation Colorado. 

The revenue generated from the sports-betting tax will go into an account that would get managed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “The money will go directly towards benefiting Colorado’s lakes, streams and rivers,” said Kuhn.

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