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Gambling MIA after 3 weeks of legislative action

Gambling MIA after 3 weeks of legislative action

Steve Beshear

by Associated Press


Posted on January 25, 2012 at 11:34 PM

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Gov. Steve Beshear's efforts to get lawmakers to approve a "simple" constitutional amendment to open Kentucky to casino-style gambling have been complicated by a bitter partisan fight over legislative redistricting.

Three weeks into the legislative session, Beshear's proposal still hasn't been introduced in the Senate, though he said in late December that he felt confident it would be done in the first week of January. He pledged to "very aggressively" push to allow Kentuckians to wager on more than horse races in the Bible-belt state with a Constitution that frowns on casinos.

"I'm not certain when the bill will actually drop," said Senate Democratic Floor Leader R.J. Palmer II of Winchester. "I would anticipate by the end of the month. There are still some negotiations and discussions going on."

The Democratic majority in the House angered Republicans by passing a redistricting plan that put several GOP incumbents in the same legislative districts to run against each other in future races or bow out. The same thing happened in the Republican-controlled Senate when Democratic incumbents were redrawn into the same districts.

Legislative leaders have downplayed the effect the rancorous redistricting fight might have on other matters, including gambling. But some rankled Republicans in the House might feel less inclined to support a measure pushed by the same Democrats who changed their district boundaries.

Gambling proponents also are dealing with lawmakers who have traditionally waited until after the Jan. 31 deadline for election filings to take on controversial measures. Pressing lawmakers to take a stand on gambling before that deadline could lead to opponents filing to run, especially in rural regions where it remains a hot-button issue.

The state's horse industry, hoping to cash in on casino gambling, has been watching anxiously as the issue unfolds. The struggling industry wants to use some of the proceeds from gambling to increase racing purses at Kentucky tracks to draw more horses into the state.

Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said Beshear's gambling proposal had taken a back seat, at least temporarily, to redistricting. With that now out of the way, Buford, whose district is rife with horse farms, said he expects lawmakers may move forward with two proposed constitutional amendments.

One would call for two free-standing casinos and four to be tied to existing horse tracks. The other would be generic, designating no particular number of casinos. It would call simply for a constitutional amendment to allow casino-style gambling.

Buford sees no chance in the Senate for the one that specifies the number of casinos and where they'll be built. He said the generic one could possibly squeak by with the required 23 of 38 votes.

"That's still an ongoing negotiation," Palmer said.

The Rev. Jeff Fugate, a Lexington pastor and one of the state's most ardent gambling opponents, said he sees the continuing negotiations as a sign that gambling proponents still don't have the votes they need.

Fugate has formed a loose coalition of Christian leaders who have vowed to hold lawmakers accountable at the polls if they vote for expanded gambling.

"Gambling is a bad idea because it redistributes money, taking it from the poorest and giving it to the wealthiest," Fugate said.

The gambling issue has lingered since Beshear's 2007 gubernatorial campaign. He ran on the promise to expand gambling opportunities in the state but so far has been unable to fulfill that promise. He was re-elected this year in a campaign that included the same gambling pledge.

Beshear said Kentucky is losing hundreds of millions of dollars to neighboring states that allow casino-style gambling. He said Kentucky could recapture some of that money for needs within its borders by offering the same kinds of gambling here.

A lingering economic recession has triggered more than $1 billion in revenue shortfalls over the past four years, and left Kentucky with a budget proposal that calls for 8.4 percent cuts to most state agencies. While gambling and a proposal for tax reforms could produce extra cash in the long term, Beshear said he doesn't expect either will come in time to substantially bolster revenues for the budget expected to be passed by mid-April.

Pro-gambling groups sanctioned a study released last week that suggested eight racetrack casinos would have a $1.7 billion economic impact on Kentucky after operating for one full year.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce released the study that said the casinos would employ about 11,000 people and generate about $65 million in taxes and about $165 million for the horse tracks.

The study projected Kentucky Downs would generate $365.5 million in its first year while Churchill Downs would generate $251.2 million. A casino in Lexington would generate $170.1 million and Turfway Park in Florence would generate $78.9 million, the study said.

The Family Foundation of Kentucky, which opposes expanded gambling, questioned the validity of the study. Martin Cothran, spokesman for the group, said casinos in neighboring Indiana are expecting negligible impacts if the Kentucky legislature approves Beshear's proposal, and if voters ratify that proposal.

David England, a thoroughbred trainer, told lawmakers last week that some owners won't race their horses in Kentucky because the purses are not competitive with states that allow slot machines at the tracks. He said he closed his training operation in Kentucky.

Other Kentuckians in the business, he said, are "barely hanging on" and are hoping the legislature will do something so "they can hold on for another year or two until we can give them the same playing level as other states around us."

John Greely, a fourth-generation Kentucky horse farm owner, urged lawmakers to legalize casino-style gambling to generate money to increase purses at the state's tracks so that Kentucky can retain its standing as the horse capital.

"Other states have created more favorable conditions for thoroughbred owners and breeders to be able to survive in these tough economic times," Greely said. "They've created more lucrative breeding incentives as well as purse structures."