By Tom LaMarra and Ron Mitchell
Legislation introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly Feb. 14 authorizing a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling calls for up to seven casinos—up to five at racetracks—if it becomes law. The stand-alone casinos would be located at least 60 miles from the nearest racetrack.
During a Capitol press conference to announce the highly anticipated legislation, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican, outlined how gaming revenue would be used. In addition to the horse industry, revenue from gaming facilities would be spent on job creation, education, human services, health care, veterans programs, local governments, and public safety.
“The time has come to let the people decide on the issue of expanded gambling,” Thayer said. “This issue has been lingering in Kentucky for nearly two decades, a majority of Kentuckians wish to vote on it, and the time has come to give them that opportunity.
“Timing is everything. The time is right.”
The bipartisan press conference was well-attended by legislators, including several co-sponsors: Republican Sens. Thayer, Carroll Gibson, and Tom Buford; and Democratic Sens. R.J. Palmer, the Senate minority leader; Perry Clark; Denise Harper Angel; Gerald Neal; and Joey Pendleton.
Details such as where to put the casinos, license fees, and tax rates would be determined by enabling legislation that would be drafted if Kentuckians vote to approve the gaming amendment. Because the bill is a constitutional amendment, it must garner at least 60% of the votes in each legislative chamber in order to pass.
That means 23 votes are needed in the Republican-controlled Senate and 60 in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Beshear said “23 or more senators have indicated they are ready to put it on the ballot.”
If eventually approved by the General Assembly, the constitutional amendment would be on the November 2012 ballot.
“You continue to hear all kinds of arguments for and against allowing expanding gaming in this state,” Beshear said. “What you don’t hear, however, is one argument about why the people of Kentucky shouldn’t have a right to vote on it. That’s because there really isn’t a legitimate argument against that. The time for a vote is now.”
Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, a Republican who got the most votes of any candidate in last November’s election, was on hand at the press conference.
“We want to do everything we can to save the signature agriculture industry in the state,” Comer said of the horse industry. “I will do everything I can to support this issue.”
Introduction of the legislation came less than a week after a group headed by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce voiced support for a constitutional amendment on gaming. On Feb. 9, the chamber announced formation of the “Kentucky Alliance for Jobs,” which has more than 30 members including individuals or organizations in business, labor unions, teachers’ organizations, local government, and the horse industry.
Thayer said the gaming amendment first needs to be assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which he chairs. After that, the bill could be heard by the committee as early as Feb. 22.
Testimony will be taken at the committee hearing from supporters and opponents, Thayer said.
Though the constitutional amendment language is simple, the enabling legislation would be much more complicated. Casino licenses would be awarded competitively, and license fees figure to be expensive.
“We’ll have a debate down the road on those issues,” Beshear said. “There are a lot of moving parts to this.”
After the press conference Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation, which has been invited to testify at the Senate committee hearing, alleged “abuse of the constitution” because racetracks, according to the amendment language, are guaranteed up to five casinos.
“It’s the first time an industry has been given box seats in the (state) constitution,” Cothran said.
The Family Foundation regularly opposes expanded gambling measures. It also has sued over the introduction of Instant Racing machines at Kentucky Downs.