FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — After years of pushing to legalize casino-style gambling in Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear sounds less than optimistic just days before the start of the next legislative session.
"I'm in conversations with legislators about the expanded gaming issue to see what, if anything, might be possible during the upcoming session," Beshear told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "We're faced with a short session and a lot of tough issues, and that may affect people's thinking about what we should do on that issue."
The second-term Democrat had been hopeful that the retirement of Senate President David Williams, the Republican who had been seen as the main roadblock to legalizing casinos, would improve the chances amending the state constitution to legalize gambling. Williams resigned late last year when Beshear appointed him as a circuit judge in southern Kentucky.
His departure, however, doesn't appear to have significantly improved the odds of passing a gambling amendment in the Bible Belt state.
Despite a long history of wagering on horses, Kentucky has never allowed casinos. And many lawmakers have been reluctant to change that, knowing they may face disapproving constituents in future elections.
Proponents have said Kentucky could collect more than $250 million in one-time license fees by allowing casinos to open. Taxing them, they contend, could generate more than $350 million a year for government programs and services.
Beshear has argued for years that Kentucky is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to neighboring states that already have casinos. He said Kentucky needs to legalize casinos so that money can be kept in the state.
The process for changing the constitution to allow gambling starts with lawmakers who have to approve a proposed amendment, which would be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.
"I have concluded from our experience to date that the amendment that would have the best chance of success would be a fairly simple amendment that just authorizes expanded gaming in the state, perhaps limiting it to a certain number of locations," Beshear said. "The efforts we have made up to now have been to tie the casinos to the race tracks, and that's created a lot of opposition from folks who say they're for expanded gaming but they don't want to give the race tracks a monopoly."
The sales pitch in the past has been that Kentucky's thoroughbred industry needs casino revenue to compete with other states that are supplementing their horse racing purses with gambling revenue. Despite the importance of the thoroughbred industry, that pitch hasn't worked.
"There might be more votes on this issue if we did a more general type of amendment and then we came back in, if it passed, and in the enabling legislation ensured that the tracks received a certain amount of the money and decided the locations," Beshear said. "It's always a complicated issue because while that seems to me to have the most support in the legislature, there are a number of folks in the horse industry who don't like that because they want a guarantee right up front that they will play a role."
Beshear pledged that he would ensure the thoroughbred industry is protected if an amendment is passed.
"But I'm not sure that satisfies some of them in the industry, and they're going to have to decide how important this is to them," he said.
Martin Cothran, a policy analyst for The Family Foundation, said gambling proponents clearly are divided.
"We've come to the point where we have to ask whether we're beating a dead horse here," Cothran said. "This has been a legislative distraction for over 12 years. They cannot win. The casino interests need to pack up their bags and go home and let state lawmakers get on to more important things."
Beshear declined to put odds on the chances of an amendment passing this year.
"I think it's too early to make that prediction," he said.