Frankfort, KY – The debate over expanded gambling in Kentucky is again front and center, with the planned introduction of gaming amendments by two, high-profile Senate Republicans. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh has the story.
Late Tuesday afternoon, reporters gathered at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington for a meeting between horse industry leaders and Senate President David Williams and Sen. Damon Thayer. During the two-hour, closed-door session, Williams outlined his proposed constitutional amendment on expanded gambling. Williams says the measure will prevent any expansion of gambling in Kentucky without a vote of the people.
"That will resolve any sort of questions," said Williams. "We have four attorney generals who've ruled one way and two attorney generals who've ruled the other, and whatever piece of legislation had come out of this last session or the next, obviously, would be litigated."
Sen. Thayer of Georgetown told the 40 thoroughbred owners and trainers at the meeting his constitutional amendment will allow expanded gambling in the seven counties that already have horse tracks, but local voters in those counties will have the final say.
"It would be run by the Kentucky Lottery," said Thayer. "And the most important factor, I believe, is that it would lock in, in the constitution, the amount of money dedicated to the horse industry."
And that amount, says Thayer, is a minimum of $100 million a year. His bill would also use gambling proceeds for infrastructure projects and the retirement of state debt. But Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, who spoke to the horse industry representatives after Williams and Thayer departed, is skeptical of the bills, especially if they're highly dependent on Senate Democratic votes for passage.
"I can tell you right now, that any proposal that comes forth that requires 17 Democrats and three or four Republicans - if I can borrow from Sen. Williams and what he has said the in the past - is dead on arrival," said Worley.
Currently, there are 20 Republicans in the Senate, 17 Democrats and one independent. Governor Steve Beshear seems intent on using gubernatorial appointments and special elections to try to wrest control of the Senate away from Republicans, a move that appears to have the support of horse industry representatives who spoke to reporters after the meeting. But even if Republicans maintain Senate control, Don Robinson of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, says the industry is not interested in the constitutional amendments offered by Williams and Thayer.
"Really, our position is by acclamation that we support the Senate having a full hearing of the bill that was presented to the House, that cleared the House this spring, and that's what we're all about," said Robinson.
That bill, which died in the Senate budget committee, allowed video slots at horse tracks. It did not include a constitutional amendment requiring voter approval. Bill Farrish of Lane's End Farm in Woodford County also sees no need for the constitutional amendments proposed by Williams and Thayer.
"I don't know what their reason is for doing it, but I think the horse industry, like every other industry in the state, is gonna pursue trying to get people elected that agree with our positions," said Farrish. "And it's no different from any other industry in the state."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo was not at the meeting, and declined comment through a spokesman. Governor Beshear issued a one-paragraph statement accusing Williams and Thayer of "playing politics with the $4 billion horse industry," and calling the constitutional amendments "a cynical maneuver designed to take pressure off of some members who regret their unwillingness to help the industry and our state just a few months ago."