Senator Damon Thayer

Senator Damon Thayer

Anne M. Eberhardt

Will KY Poll Aid Bill on Expanded Gambling?

A Kentucky poll shows support for racetrack VLTs and a statewide vote on gaming.

A poll indicating strong support for racetrack video lottery terminals—and even stronger support for a constitutional amendment on the issue—generated plenty of talk among Kentucky legislators Feb. 3. Legislative action, however, remains questionable.

Racetrack gaming has fared well in previous polls in Kentucky, but the latest numbers are the highest since 2002, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal/WHAS11 Bluegrass Poll.

According to the poll of 617 people that called themselves registered Kentucky voters, 59% support gaming machines at tracks, and 85% believe the question should be on the statewide ballot rather than the decision made by the General Assembly. The poll was conducted Jan. 28-31, pollsters said.

The gaming issue hasn’t had any legs through the first month of the 2010 General Assembly session, but some officials have noted roughly two months remain in the session.

“The 85% approval rate for the constitutional amendment approach is the biggest I’ve seen,” said Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, who introduced legislation calling for a statewide vote on VLTs in counties with racetracks. “It’s a very significant number, and it shows public support for a constitutional amendment is higher than ever.

“I think it sends a message to horse industry leadership it should take a second look at my bill in this legislative session.”

Kentucky horse industry representatives have questioned the revenue splits in Thayer’s bill, as well as provisions for competitive bidding for licenses and local-option votes. They also claim the constitutional process lacks the expediency of statutory approval.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who supported a constitutional amendment on racetrack casinos in 2008 and this year built his two-year budget around more than $700 million in revenue from VLTs, told the Courier-Journal he doesn’t support the constitutional approach and believes there’s still a chance the legislature will act this year.

Even if Republicans were to support Thayer’s bill, history indicates a lack of Democratic support. In 2008, the governor’s casino plan—eventually supported by the Kentucky Equine Education Project—was dismantled by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and left to die in that session.

KEEP later criticized Beshear for the manner in which the legislation was handled. In 2009-10, however, KEEP’s angst has largely centered on the Republican-controlled Senate.

KEEP chairman Brereton Jones couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Thayer, when asked about the status of his bill, said: “I’m waiting for horse industry leaders to support (the legislation). I think it has a chance if the Democrats don’t block-vote against it.”

Thayer, chair of the Senate Committee on State and Local Government where the bill would first be heard, previously held a meeting with two racetrack officials who indicated the constitutional amendment process would take too long.

“Perhaps now they’d be willing to reconsider the possibility,” Thayer said after the poll results were released. “I’m willing to meet with them in Frankfort to discuss it. The horse industry can continue to argue whether a constitutional amendment is legally required or not, but that argument is unnecessary because that train has left the station.

“The only way this issue will move forward is through a constitutional amendment.”

The measure would need 23 votes to pass the Senate, which has 20 Republicans, 17 Democrats, and one Independent who caucuses with the GOP.