Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

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February 15, 2012

Gambling amendment introduced

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Sen. Damon Thayer on Tuesday announced the much anticipated gambling amendment they hope to push through the legislature, an amendment that would allow up to seven casinos, five at existing horse racing tracks.

Beshear and Thayer were surrounded by some key lawmakers, including six Democratic senators and House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark. Republican Sen. Carroll Gibson was also on hand as were other House members and they were joined by Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

The one-page amendment says the General Assembly shall authorize the establishment of casino gambling at no more than five racetracks and no more than two other, free-standing locations. Those, however, could not be within 60 miles of a licensed horse track.

The strategy of supporters was clear: “Let the people decide.” Every speaker — Beshear, Thayer, Senate Democratic Leader R.J. Palmer — all invoked the same message: to let the voters decide the issue which has been around since 1994.

But obstacles to passage just as quickly began to emerge: Stumbo, Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation, which opposes expanded gambling, Senate President David Williams and Senate majority leader Robert Stivers all expressed concern about the language of the amendment that appears to guarantee licenses to one industry, the horse racing business.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t like the idea of constitutionally guaranteeing one industry a license and it doesn’t define what  a casino game is,” said Stumbo shortly after the press conference though adding he would “keep an open mind” on the measure and had assured Beshear he’d keep an open mind. He hinted that if the bill reaches the House it would likely undergo changes.

Williams said he continues to oppose expanded gambling and he said he thinks the wording of the amendment “will be troublesome to many people.” Stivers, too, questioned the word “shall” in the first sentence of the bill, wondering if that could be construed to mean the General Assembly had no choice but to grant at least one casino license to a race track and at least one free-standing license.

Outside Williams’ capitol office, Republican Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville, who has said in the past he was inclined to support expanded gambling, also questioned the language which he thinks guarantees a monopoly to the horse racing industry.

But Beshear zeroed in on the message that “it’s time to let the people decide once and for all.”  He said he’s confident the legislature will be able to look past its differences and “do what’s best for Kentucky” and he thinks the “issue has reached the tipping point.”

He cited two polls, one sponsored by horse racing interests; another by the Republican Party, which indicated a sizeable majority of voters want to vote on the issue — even some who say they oppose expanded gambling.

“The question is simple,” Beshear said. “Do we as leaders listen to our people or do we ignore them?”

Beshear said no precise estimates have been made of the revenue the proposal might generate, but he said any estimate would be in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.”  He said some of the money will be used to keep the horse industry on a “level playing field” with tracks and breeders in other states which use gambling revenue to support purses and breeding incentives.

The amendment calls for revenues to be spent “for purposes including job creation, education, human services, health care, veterans’ programs, local governments, public safety, and the support of the horse industry.”

However, it provides no specific amounts or percentages. All of that would be determined by enabling legislation if the measure first makes it to the ballot and then is approved by voters.

Williams said the language on where the money would go is so vague as to be worthless.

Thayer said he expects the bill to be assigned to the State and Local Government Committee which Thayer chairs and Williams later said that is where it will be assigned. Thayer said he’d like to call the bill for a vote in committee next week.

Cothran echoed concerns about language guaranteeing licenses to tracks.

“We’re going to point out to lawmakers that, as far as we know, this is the first time one industry has been given box seats in the constitution like this,” Cothran said. “What this bill does is let campaign contributors to the governor write their names into our state’s constitution.”

Beshear, who handily defeated Williams for a second term as governor last fall, received thousands of dollars of contributions from horse industry and race track interests.

Immediately attention turned Tuesday to vote counting. A constitutional amendment requires 23 votes in the 38-member Senate and 60 in the 100-member House.

“We just don’t think they have the votes,” said Cothran. “We think this bill has been dead for a couple of weeks now and we think that’s the reason you just don’t see many senators here showing their support.” He said he sees no more than 19 votes in the Senate.

Thayer said the measure is close in the Senate: “It could go either way.” Beshear has said he thinks there are currently 23 votes “or more. But until they call the roll we won’t know for sure.”

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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