Are Kentucky Slots Facing “Do or Die”?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gregory Hall of The Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Is this the last chance for casino gambling in Kentucky?

FRANKFORT, KY. — Supporters of expanded gambling have said this year’s legislative session — fresh off Gov. Steve Beshear’s landslide re-election win over Senate President David Williams — may offer their best chance yet for success.

But is it also their last chance?

“I don’t think so. Not at all,” said Beshear, who has proposed a constitutional amendment that is expected to get its first airing on Wednesday before the Senate State & Local Government Committee.

Whether the measure passes this session or not — and he thinks it can — Beshear said, “I am excited that the issue is finally getting the attention that I think it deserves, and I think it will only go on from here.”

Others, on both sides of the debate, aren’t so sure.

While the issue likely wouldn’t go away, they say, a defeat could seriously derail political momentum, at least for the push to allow expanded gaming through a constitutional amendment — an approach that circumscribes the chance of a court challenge.

Martin Cothran, a senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, which opposes expanded gambling, said a defeat on the Senate floor could kill the issue practically and politically speaking.

“I think … unless there’s a change in the party dynamics of the Senate, that this is the last hurrah,” Cothran said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who has pushed for expanded gambling in the past but prefers doing it through statute, agreed that defeat of Senate Bill 151 might end the push for an amendment.

But he said, “I don’t think you can say something that’s been around for 20 years is going to die overnight.

“… This issue’s not going to go away until we address it or solve it or put an end to it. The manner in which the issue is addressed may change, but I don’t think the issue would go away.”

When asked the same question, Williams, a Burkesville Republican who opposes expanded gambling, said he doesn’t respond to hypotheticals. During last year’s campaign, he said the votes could be in the Senate to pass an amendment, but he has been critical of the way the current bill is drafted.

A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote in both chambers of the legislature — 23 senators and 60 representatives — and ratification by the voters in the November general election.

SB 151, which contains Beshear’s proposed constitutional amendment, was introduced last week and assigned to the State & Local Government Committee, whose chairman, Georgetown Republican Damon Thayer, is the measure’s sponsor.

The amendment would allow up to five casinos at racetracks and two at other locations, though the latter could not be within 60 miles of one of the state’s eight tracks.

But that wording could change significantly by the time the committee is expected to take it up on Wednesday, with Beshear and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a Republican, planning to testify for it and Cothran against it.

Thayer previously compared the bill’s drafting to “threading the needle” — finding a compromise that works for those who want casinos only at tracks and those who want no guarantees for tracks.

But responding to criticism of the bill’s language, both he and Stumbo said a simpler amendment would have a better shot at passing.

Specifically, some legislators in both parties and chambers have been critical of the amendment’s preferential treatment of the horse industry and in how the 60-mile radius in essence gives racetracks like Churchill Downs in Louisville and Turfway Park in Florence monopolies in their markets.

If those tracks didn’t get one of the five racetrack casinos, then there wouldn’t be any casino in the Kentucky portion of their markets.

“There are some legitimate constitutional concerns that are being brought up and I think we’re going to have to be mindful of those,” Thayer said on Thursday.

He said that he thinks a simpler amendment — leaving the racetrack issues to enabling legislation that would be considered later if the amendment passes — is “the way we’re headed.”

In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Beshear said he may make changes to the bill in response to complaints from legislators.
“We’re getting a lot of useful suggestions, and I’m going to be talking with a number of folks in the legislature,” he said.

As it stands now, the bill has at least five votes in committee — six are needed for passage — and Thayer has said it likely will get to the Senate floor, where Republicans command a 23-15 majority, including one independent who caucuses with them.

While the Family Foundation has declared the bill dead, and opponents plan to rally against it Tuesday at the Capitol, Thayer said he doesn’t believe anyone really knows where the votes will be when and if the roll is called on the floor.

“I think that’s difficult to say definitively, at this time, whether it’s going to pass or fail,” he said. “I think it’s very close. I do think it could go either way.”

Cothran said he believes the bill might die in Thayer’s committee. But if it does get to a floor vote, he believes a decisive defeat “is a very real possibility” — and effectively would spell the end to the push for expanded gaming, assuming the makeup of the Senate remains similar.

“I think that any kind of conservative leadership would have plenty of justification to say the next time they bring a bill like this, ‘been there, done that,’ ” he said.

Cothran acknowledged that “as long as there’s big money in it for casino advocates,” the incentive to continue the push remains. “But I think that they’re going to find fewer politicians willing to risk their credibility on it,” he said.

Thayer said he agrees with Cothran on every issue but this one.

“To me it’s about letting the people decide,” Thayer said, declining to say whether he thinks the issue is dead forever if his bill fails.

“I never want to say anything is alive or dead forever,” he said. “But this is the last time I will sponsor it.”

Patrick Neely, executive director of the pro-gambling Kentucky Equine Education Project, said they don’t see an end to the issue if the bill fails.

“As long as our signature industry remains at a competitive disadvantage and as long as hundreds of millions of Kentucky dollars continue flowing to out-of-state casinos, the issue will continue to be debated and discussed,” he said.


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