Gov. Steve Beshear and Sen. Damon Thayer at the hearing to discuss the expanded gaming bill.

Gov. Steve Beshear and Sen. Damon Thayer at the hearing to discuss the expanded gaming bill.

Anne M. Eberhardt

KY Senate Panel Approves Expanded Gaming Bill

The vote was 7-4, and the legislation now goes to full Senate.

An amended bill that would authorize a constitutional amendment on allowing up to seven casinos in Kentucky was approved Feb. 22 by the Senate Committee on State and Local Government and will be sent to the full Senate for consideration.

The vote by the 11-member committee, which is chaired by Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, a co-sponsor of the gaming legislation, was 7-4. All four Democrats on the committee, as well as three Republicans, voted in favor.

Officials said the measure could be offered on the Senate floor as early as Feb. 23-24 in what figures to be a drawn-out process with floor amendments offered.

Before passage, the committee adopted revised language in the bill that removed the original provision that of the seven casinos, five would be at racetracks. Though the stipulation that up to five casinos could be located at racetracks and up to two at non-track locations was removed, the amended bill retained the provision that any of the casinos not at racetrack locations could not be within 60 miles of a track.

The committee vote came after an open hearing in which proponents and opponents addressed the proposed legislation. During the hearing, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who made expanded gambling a priority in his successful re-election campaign last year, answered questions about the legislation and casinos.

During his presentation, Beshear reiterated that, though he supports expanded gaming, the bill allowing a vote on the issue has support from opponents and proponents of casino-style gaming because it would allow voters to decide the issue. He also said casinos could provide much-needed revenue for programs across the state and help the horse industry remain competitive with other states in which racetrack purses are enhanced by gaming money.

The amendment as passed says gambling revenue would be used for purposes including job creation, education, human services, health care, veterans’ programs, local governments, public safety, and support of the horse industry.

Thayer, a horse industry proponent and former racing executive, said after the vote he believes a constitutional amendment is the only way to address the issue. He noted he opposed gaming-via-statute legislation a few years ago.

“I paid the price for that but I was able to look myself in the mirror, and I can look myself in the mirror now,” Thayer said. “Other states have done (expanded gambling) by statute, but it is wrong. I’m not afraid to give people the opportunity to decide this issue. This is a democracy.”

Republican Sen. Tom Jensen, who voted against the bill, said casino gambling won’t raise enough money for the state, and that it would be diluted by “earmarking” in the legislature.

“You can’t give us enough money to solve problems,” Jensen said. “I’m confident in letting the people decide, but (legislators) are better educated than the public.”

Thayer said he believes the public is far more versed on the topic than legislators believe.

The committee meeting, which lasted 2 ½ hours before a packed house of proponents and opponents, got lost at times in constitutional debate among attorneys. Representatives of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, which is anti-gambling, said the amendment wording would make legislators breach their constitutional duty.

Democrat R.J. Palmer, the Senate Minority Leader who voted for the bill, noted the Family Foundation in 2009 said it would sue the state if expanded gambling was pursued via statute instead of a constitutional amendment. Martin Cothran, a Family Foundation lawyer, said the organization disagrees with the substance of the current language.

Cothran also said the 60-mile radius clause protecting racetracks gives racing a monopoly on casinos even if the word “racetrack” doesn’t appear in the amendment language. Beshear said he believes the public wants to see a limit on the number of casinos and have an idea of where they could be located.

Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, elected to the post last November, said the equine industry is a major component of agriculture in the state and must be protected. He spoke in favor of the bill.

“The interest we have is the health of the horse industry, and the domino effect on the agriculture community should it fail,” Comer said. “This signature industry deserves an opportunity to make its case to the public.”

After the committee vote, racing industry officials indicated they weren’t surprised by the 7-4 margin even though a casino bill never before cleared a Senate committee in Kentucky.

“We’re pleased with the outcome,” said Patrick Neely, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project. “We applaud Gov. Beshear and Sen. Thayer for their leadership on the issue. This is extremely important—it’s the first time an expanded gambling bill passed a Senate committee.

“Now we have to work to get 23 votes in the Senate so it can go to the House of Representatives.”

“We need a discussion of what’s going on in the state,” Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said. “The testimony was very enlightening. This was only one step, but an important step.”

Should the General Assembly pass the constitutional amendment, and voters approve it in November, enabling legislation would be required for things such as casino locations, license fees, a bidding process, and revenue splits.