By Esther Marr and Tom LaMarra
In 2006, when efforts to win legislative approval for racetrack casino gambling failed, Kentucky horse industry representatives made a prediction: There wouldn’t be any movement during the 2007 General Assembly session, but the race for governor would impact the chances of legislation in 2008.
That seems to be the case. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Beshear has fired the first shot; he already has said he would actively campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow expanded gambling in Kentucky. Beshear believes the state could raise at least $500 million a year in revenue for various programs.
Some other candidates support expanded gambling, but others don’t. While Beshear has been quite vocal on the topic, others have opted not to make it a major issue in their campaigns.
Democrats Otis Hensley and House Speaker Jody Richards, and Republicans Billy Harper and Gov. Ernie Fletcher, aren’t proponents of expanded gambling, though Fletcher continues to maintain his long-held position that he would support it if Kentucky voters approved a constitutional amendment. Lawmakers, however, must first pass enabling legislation.
The gubernatorial primary is set for May 22 in Kentucky, with the general election in November. That leaves more than five months of intense campaigning.
It has been about 15 years since the issue of casino gambling first surfaced in the legislature. After many failed attempts to pass a bill, it appears 2008 could be different.
The horse industry is expected to make a big push for racetrack gaming next year, but like in 2006, it probably will note how the revenue could support state programs. Expanded gambling could produce hundreds of millions of dollars for horse racing and breeding, but it’s primarily a public-policy issue.
“I think there will be a significant piece of legislation to address that issue next year,” said Turfway Park president Bob Elliston, who in 2006 was actively involved in the racetrack gaming push. “It has been a front-and-center issue (in the primary race), and as we sit here today, all the major candidates on the Democratic side are in support of expanded gambling in various degrees. It will remain in the public dialogue this year.”
Elliston also said Democratic Rep. Larry Clark, who often sponsors racing-related legislation, has communicated with the horse industry on the topic. “I think that sends a clear message when a major member of the General Assembly is ready to move on the issue,” Elliston said.
But having a governor who supports expanded gambling doesn’t guarantee its passage. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Ed Rendell made it part of his gubernatorial campaign, and legislation passed in 2004; in Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich pushed for slot machines for four years and was repeatedly rebuffed.
So where do the Kentucky candidates stand?
“(Beshear) has been a proponent of (gaming) since the beginning of his campaign because there are numerous needs that Kentucky has to meet in education, health care, and economic development, and to meet those needs requires a stream of revenue that we currently don’t have,” Beshear spokesman Robert Kellar said. “And Steve isn’t in favor of new taxes, so how do you answer that question?”
Kellar said Beshear’s plans for Kentucky are not dependent on expanded gaming, and he has several programs that don’t rely on gaming revenue. But Beshear claimed that if he is elected, expanded gaming could be on the ballot by November 2008, and the law could take effect in January 2009. Revenue could start streaming in later that year.
“The way (Beshear) views gaming is that it should be allowed at various racetracks and at a few free-standing facilities,” Kellar said. “There’s a perception out there that has been perpetrated by the anti-casino lobby--which is funded by out-of-state casinos--that there’s going to be a slot machine at every gas station, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Steve would never support that, and that would never happen.”
Another Democratic candidate, prominent Thoroughbred owner and Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford, supports a public referendum on expanded gambling, but believes it should be tightly regulated.
“He believes that we should not rely on gaming money for anything,” Lunsford spokeswoman Elisabeth Smith said. “None of his plans are dependent on (those funds) because studies show we will not receive any of the gaming money until 2009. (Lunsford) believes (gaming) should be put on a ballot for Kentucky to vote on, but he doesn’t think its going to be a cure-all, and he doesn’t build that into any of his plans.
“If it does pass, it has to be passed with a companion bill that would say exactly where the money is going.”
The Kentucky Equine Education Project in 2006 proposed a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling that listed specific percentages for revenue and the programs it would support. The House of Representatives still wouldn’t support it; some lawmakers said they didn’t like having the revenue locked in.
Additional Democratic candidates that have differing stances on the issue include Gatewood Galbraith, who said he would actively push for a constitutional amendment allowing expanded gaming but believes the state should own the casinos; and Steve Henry, who supports the people’s right to vote on the issue but believes casinos should be limited to racetracks and specific sites among Kentucky state borders.
Meanwhile, former U.S. Congresswoman Anne Northup, a Republican candidate for Kentucky governor, has said expanded gambling should be left to the legislature.
Said Northup spokesman Barry Peel: “The legislators would have to be the ones to put (gaming) on the ballot. Northup believes (the legislature) is the best judge of public opinion, and whether they ought to vote on it or not.”
A May 15 SurveyUSA poll of likely Kentucky Democratic and Republican primary voters shows Beshear, the candidate with the strongest stance on gaming, comfortably in front of other Democratic candidates at 32%, followed by Lunsford at 23%.
On the Republican side, Fletcher led at 44%, followed by Northup at 34%. The survey reflected the opinions of 676 Democrats and 511 Republicans interviewed by SurveyUSA May 12-15.
KEEP in 2004-05 produced a report that showed the positive impact casinos could have on the state, but the organization believes casino gambling should be limited to the state’s racetracks.