Senator Damon Thayer

Senator Damon Thayer

Anne M. Eberhardt

Legislative Showdown Looming in Kentucky

A Kentucky lawmaker is moving ahead with his plan for votes on racetrack gaming.

As the Kentucky Equine Education Project vows to continue its legislative push for racetrack gaming, a state lawmaker plans to move forward with his plan for statewide and local option votes on gaming.

The KEEP board of directors voted unanimously Dec. 14 to “redouble” efforts to “protect Kentucky jobs and put (the) signature horse industry on a level competitive playing field,” meaning it would continue its push for video lottery terminals at the state’s racetrack.

Earlier in the day, Republican Sen. Damon Thayer said he is committed to introducing a bill calling for a constitutional amendment on racetrack VLTs when the General Assembly convenes in January. A statement from KEEP made no mention of Thayer’s pre-filed legislation, though racing industry representatives thus far have called it unworkable.

“They know my phone number and know where my office is,” Thayer said. “If they would like to meet with me to discuss my proposal or the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last June, I’d be happy to. I’m committed to moving my bill in January and also to finding a short-term solution to provide funds for purses and breeders’ incentives.”

Thayer is chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, in which the bill would be introduced. He said he believes the measure has enough support to garner the required 23 votes needed for a constitutional amendment to pass the Senate.

“It’s the only viable alternative right now,” Thayer said, “and it can happen a lot quicker than people think.”

Horse industry officials have said it could take years to implement racetrack VLTs under Thayer’s proposal. Racetracks have said the 25% in VLT revenue they would receive under the legislation isn’t sufficient to construct and operate quality facilities.

They also claimed the legislation passed by the Senate earlier this year isn't a viable option. It called for, among other things, an increase in the tax paid on out-of-state wagers on Kentucky racing, something that could greatly impact pari-mutuel handle.

During the Dec. 14 edition of Kentucky Tonight hosted by Bill Goodman on Kentucky Educational Television, Lane’s End Farm general manager Bill Farish said the constitutional amendment plan has “built-in roadblocks” including the local-option provision and language that calls for a bidding process on VLT licenses. Thus, it’s possible some racetracks wouldn’t get VLTs.

Farish also said it’s unlikely a majority of Democrats would vote in favor of the bill.

KEEP executive director Patrick Neely acknowledged most people would rather vote on racetrack gaming, but also said lawmakers are elected to tackle such issues. “It’s up to our leadership to do something,” he said.

Thayer said his legislation has a chance if “Democrats don’t block-vote against it.”

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Dec. 15 that the KEEP board discussed a plan to alter the state lottery statute to allow for local votes on racetrack VLTs. No vote was taken.

A statement from KEEP offered no details on an action plan.

“As we all know, our competitor states are using revenue from expanded gaming to enhance their purses and breeders incentive funds, which is causing a severe loss of Kentucky racing and breeding stock to those other states,” former Kentucky governor and KEEP chairman Brereton Jones said in the statement. “When horses leave our state, jobs go with them, from the farmer who grows the hay, to the veterinarian, feed supply salesperson, equipment manufacturer, groom, equine insurance agent, and on and on.

“We have a duty to make our industry as healthy as possible, to bring back the jobs that have already left the state, and to protect and create new jobs right here in Kentucky. We have no choice but to keep fighting for our industry.”

Jones said the KEEP board “voted unanimously to pursue a legislative strategy that would save jobs and provide immediate relief by putting our industry on a level competitive playing field. The board also voted unanimously to further engage our 15,000 members statewide in the political and fundraising process, and to continue the trend of growing our membership across the state. Our industry is committed to recruiting and supporting candidates that will support the horse industry.

“This will continue to be an industry-wide effort. Seventy percent of Kentuckians agree that our industry should be put on a level competitive playing field, and a bill passed the House of Representatives for the first time ever this past June. We are so close to reaching our goal, and our resolve has only strengthened. We will not quit until the fight is won.”

If legislation isn’t introduced in the upcoming General Assembly session, it appears KEEP intends to try to change the makeup of the state legislature in the 2010 general election.