A measure authorizing a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling in Kentucky was defeated by the state Senate on a 21-16 vote the afternoon of Feb. 23. One senator was absent.
The measure would have authorized up to seven casinos in the state had it made it through the General Assembly. It was largely opposed by Republicans even though its primary sponsor, Sen. Damon Thayer, is a Republican who worked closely with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in bipartisan fashion.
Thayer said he would have preferred the measure be passed over given the absence of Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal but realized the motion would have failed. He declined to make the motion, and also withdrew 10 floor amendments that had been submitted.
“I’m not a strong advocate of casinos,” Thayer said. “I don’t go to casinos, and I don’t really like them. I’m a horse racing guy. But some people have made the choice to engage in that form of entertainment. It’s a free country.
“I wish as the sponsor of this bill to put this issue to rest once and for all. I trust the people of the Commonwealth.”
Other Republican senators spoke against the measure as expected and claimed casino gambling would be a scourge upon the state. One of them, Ken Winters, called it “a sad day for Kentucky,” while others told stories about individuals they know who were negatively impacted by gambling.
Democratic Sen. Tim Shaughnessy spoke in favor of the bill, saying casino gambling isn’t a new issue for the public. He noted that Beshear, who has lobbied for a constitutional amendment, made it a major part of his gubernatorial campaigns and easily defeated two Republican challengers, one of them an incumbent.
Shaughnessy also credited Thayer for his bipartisan approach, which he called a “perspective not rare in this chamber, but non-existent.”
Democrat R.J. Palmer, the Senate Minority Leader, also cited some bipartisan progress that could help “the reputation of this chamber.” The Senate for roughly 10 years has been controlled by President David Williams, a Republican who voted against the constitutional amendment.
Clearly, however, there are signs of change in the Senate.
The bill was approved Feb. 22 by the Senate Committee on State and Local Government. The vote by the 11-member committee, which is chaired by Thayer, was 7-4. All four Democrats on the committee, as well as three Republicans, voted in favor.
A major objective of the measure was to aid the state's horse industry, which is facing intense competition from other states. It remains to be seen what course of action the industry will take with about a month left in the General Assembly session.
"Kentucky's horse industry has undoubtedly reached a critical juncture," said Patrick Neely, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project. "We therefore challenge those elected officials who professed support for Kentucky's signature horse industry, but voted against the bill, to help us find solutions to our industry's significant competitive disadvantage."
After the vote, Beshear issued a statement expressing disappointment, but he also said the issue isn't going away.
“Obviously, I am disappointed that several of the senators who had publicly said they would support letting the people decide did not follow through on their commitment to our citizens," Beshear said. "I am also disappointed that Sen. Williams chose to sabotage the chance for our citizens to decide by scheduling the vote for today, when he knew that a senator who planned to vote 'yes' would not be in town.
"However, for the very first time, we were able to get this issue considered by the state Senate, and I appreciate the bipartisan cooperation of Sen. Thayer and others, which allowed that to happen. This is a good omen for the future of expanded gaming in our state, and I look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to address this issue."