Feb. 3 has come and gone with nary a whimper heard from the Kentucky Thoroughbred industry in Frankfort, the state capital, where lawmakers are in the midst of a legislative session that began in January and is scheduled to end in April. It was suggested in this column in the issue of Jan. 3 that a grassroots movement sprout from what has been an apathetic and leaderless industry to educate state legislators about the Thoroughbred industry, helping them understand that it is much more than showplace horse farms owned by millionaires.
I proposed Feb. 3 as a day for a mass visit to Frankfort by farm owners and their employees, van drivers, feed suppliers, veterinarians, tack shop owners, and anyone else who makes a living from the horse business.
Of immediate interest is proposed legislation for a public referendum on permitting slot machines or casino gambling at Kentucky racetracks. Like many states, Kentucky has a huge budget deficit, and permitting existing gambling facilities to broaden their wagering menu is one way to plug the hole. Slots at tracks have helped other states deal with budget shortfalls and also strengthened their racing and breeding industries. Border states with slots have sucked money out of Kentucky and damaged the state's No. 1 business, the horse industry.
But the proposal for an en masse visit to the state capital was discouraged by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association on the advice of lobbyists it recently hired to push the slots bill. During a Jan. 23 general membership meeting of the KTA at Keeneland, lobbyists said it would be better to hold off on the visit, at least for now.
A number of Kentucky Thoroughbred owners and breeders with substantial investments have expressed frustration over the KTA's past ineffectiveness on legislative matters. They find it shocking that an industry of this size does not have a full-time lobbyist to represent them year-round.
Kentucky legislators can't learn everything about the horse business in the few weeks that remain before the session deadline to file bills. It requires professional lobbyists, but it also takes commitment from the rank and file. It doesn't hurt to contribute to Political Action Committees (PACs) and make campaign contributions. The KTA's PAC has less than $6,000, a woefully inadequate amount.
The fact the KTA meeting on such an important issue took place three weeks into the legislative session suggests a lack of planning.
By contrast, the Texas Thoroughbred Association contacted its members three months prior to an anticipated special session in April, providing a grassroots campaign action plan to back slot machine legislation. The TTA is encouraging its members to join the powerful Texas Farm Bureau and benefit from that organization's political expertise. The TTA distributed fact sheets to its members detailing what will happen to the horse industry if slots revenue is added, and what is projected if slots are turned down.
The Kentucky Farm Bureau has 440,000 members, although only 80,000 are engaged in agriculture (the others join for insurance benefits). Communications director Gary Huddleston said the bureau floods the state capital with hundreds of members once each session, making sure every legislator is visited and advised of the organization's political agenda. The bureau also has numerous lobbyists working on its behalf.
Huddleston said the legislative visits by farmers have been the most effective way of getting through to members of the House and Senate.
"The people whose livelihoods are at stake are going to have to get active on an issue before any hired lobbyist is going to make much progress," Huddleston said. "You need both, but from our standpoint there is nothing quite as effective as having someone visit their local representative."