Kentucky's debate over casino gambling is a long standing one, but there are indications the proposal has a greater chance of hearings this year in both legislative chambers.
Expanded gambling has been on Governor Beshear's agenda since the beginning of his first term. Now, seven years later, it remains on his agenda. He made yet another pitch to lawmakers earlier this month in his annual State of the Commonwealth Address.
“I realize there are many arguments for and against gaming, but there is no reason to deny the people of Kentucky an opportunity to vote up or down on this issue,” Beshear said.
Once again, the governor spoke about gambling related entertainment dollars going to businesses in other states like Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia. But the idea has always been a non-starter in the Republican-controlled state senate.
Former State Senate President David Williams was adamant in his opposition. Besides moral objections, he saw it as damaging to the economy and a potential magnet for organized crime. Repeatedly, most proposals that would have expanded gaming were dead on arrival in the 38-member chamber. In 2012, a bill calling for a statewide vote on the issue did make it to the Senate floor, but failed to pass. Last year, Manchester Republican Robert Stivers took over as Senate president and he has indicated he will ‘not impede the process.’
So, expanded gambling legislation could be heard in a senate committee. For two decades, House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark has pushed for an expansion of gambling. Clark believes his legislation could be married with a similar bill offered by Louisville Senator Dan Seum.
“Well, I think that’s sort of been the communication with the Speaker of the House and the President that they start it over there so hopefully that Senator Seum and I can get our bills put together and come up with a compromise that everybody can vote on,” Clark said.
One of Clark's bills calls for a statewide voter referendum on casinos. Slot machines would fund bigger race purses and fuel an aggressive breeding program for thoroughbred horses. By establishing five casinos at horse tracks and three stand alone facilities, the Democratic Representative says there would also be more money for state services.
“We’re at a crossroads, where we do not have enough revenue to continue to support education, health and human services, economic development to create jobs. We need new revenue and a lot of members don’t want to vote for tax modernization, so the alternative is gaming that will generate about 286 million dollars a year for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Clark added.
Even with the door open in the state senate, the opposition remains considerable. Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine voted no on the last expanded gambling proposal.
“I think there’s some serious concerns about, is it the proper role of government to set up a business that will cause its citizens potentially to lose money,” Stine said.
And Paducah Independent Bob Leeper, who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, doesn’t view expanded gambling as a ‘good budgetary move.’
“I’ve never been in favor of the slot machines,” Leeper said. “I think it’s basically a tax on folks in many ways. Although they may choose to do it, a lot of them are not able to afford the risks that they take and for the government to sanction that, I personally have been consistently opposed to that.”
Leeper represents part of west Kentucky where casinos are nearby, in Illinois and Missouri.
Another persistent opponent is Martin Cothran with Kentucky’s Family Foundation. Cothran believes little has changed in the state senate and it will again kill an expansion of gambling. He says the political environment ‘works against it.’ Cothran believes the issue has spooked House Democrats, who want to protect their majority status. No casino related legislation has been heard in either chamber so far in this session.