Sen. Damon Thayer

Sen. Damon Thayer

Anne M. Eberhardt

KY Senators Seek Public Vote on Gaming

One bill is for racetrack slots; another would ban gambling expansion without a vote.

During a presentation to members of the horse industry at the Kentucky Horse Park Oct. 20, Kentucky Senate President David Williams and Sen. Damon Thayer, both Republicans, proposed constitutional amendments regarding the future of the state's horse industry.

While Williams indicated he would propose a constitutional amendment during the 2010 General Assembly session that would ban the expansion of gambling in Kentucky without a vote of the people, Thayer offered a completely different amendment that proposes a referendum on video lottery terminals in seven counties with live racing.

Thayer said his amendment would include a competitive bidding process run by the Kentucky Lottery between the seven counties eligible for each of the licenses. The facilities would not be limited to racetracks.

“The most important factor I believe (in this amendment) is that it would lock into the constitution the amount of money dedicated to the horse industry,” said Thayer, who noted he would pre-file his proposal in the next couple of weeks.

Thayer proposes that at least $100 million, or 25% of net terminal revenue, whichever is higher, be earmarked for the horse industry, with another 25% going to the VLT operator, and the remaining 50% to the "Building Kentucky’s Future Fund." The fund would be used for infrastructure projects, as well as to pay down debt on existing infrastructure projects that are already funded through the Kentucky General Assembly.

“I believe this proposal can pass the Kentucky State Senate, and after debating this issue since 1993 in Kentucky, it’s time to put it on the ballot in 2010 and let the people of Kentucky decide its fate,” Thayer said.

He noted there had never been constitutional amendment on the matter that had made to the floor of either chamber. If the amendment does pass the Senate, Thayer hopes the governor will call a special session in December to consider enabling legislation to figure out how racing's share would be split.

After that, there would be county referendums where the gaming machines would be located.

“I heard from a lot of people in the horse industry that thought I should have voted for the House bill (to allow for expanded gaming) back in the last session, and they were mostly critical of me because they thought I was ambiguous in my stance,” Thayer said. “I was surprised at that, because I’ve always said I’m for a constitutional amendment.

“If it goes through to the ballot, I would vote for it. But I am not a huge slots or casino proponent. I don’t think they’re the long-term solution for horse racing, and I think it does mask some of the tremendous problems inherent with the horse industry. There are a lot of steps I would like to see taken to move the industry forward. But I’m willing to sponsor the amendment and do it in a way that I believe protects the horse industry.”

At least one Democratic state senator and several representatives of the horse industry said Thayer's plan is too little, too late.

“Our members are not inclined to support a constitutional amendment,” Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley said. “It would require nearly all the Democratic caucus (17-18 members) and three or four Republicans to support it, and that’s not going to happen.

“This is about politics, not about addressing the issue. The only thing this does is buy time, divide the industry, and that’s what it’s intended to do. What this is totally about is to create another wedge issue so they can pull out a conservative movement to try and protect or re-elect some of their members.”

“A constitutional amendment is too little, too late,” horseman Don Robinson said. “Many mares have already left the state. We can’t afford to wait that long. We need to go to a statutory referendum. It’s a different timetable now; we’re in trouble."

“There’s nothing wrong with a constitutional amendment at all. It’s just too damn late,” Robinson said,  indicating it could be 2014 before Kentucky sees any of the revenue from expanded gaming.

“Where was Sen.Thayer four years ago? Where was David Williams?” asked David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association/Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders.

“We asked for their help then,” Robinson said. “This is disingenuous.”