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Anne M. Eberhardt

Racetrack Gaming Issue Heats Up in Kentucky

Are Republicans plotting to seek a public vote on racetrack gaming in Kentucky?

A Kentucky Thoroughbred breeder said Republican lawmakers plan to push for a constitutional amendment on racetrack gaming, but a spokesperson for the state’s Senate leader said that’s not the case.

Bill Farish, general manager of Lane’s End Farm in Central Kentucky whose family is prominent in Republican circles in Kentucky and nationally, said Oct. 19 Republicans, led by Senate President David Williams, will push for the ballot measure in 2010 rather than address racetrack gaming statutorily. Earlier this year, legislation to authorize racetrack video lottery terminals died in a Senate committee after passing the full House of Representatives.

“While our signature industry continues to exit the Commonwealth, our Republican leaders in the Senate continue to insist on playing politics with the future of the Thoroughbred business in Kentucky,” Farish said in a letter to the media. “For the last few years, Senate Republicans led by Senate President David Williams have steadfastly opposed a constitutional amendment to allow expanded gaming opportunities at Kentucky’s racetracks. Their longstanding opposition has allowed our competitor states to establish racing and breeding programs subsidized by expanded gaming, and those states have put us at an enormous competitive disadvantage.

“We are losing racehorses, stallions, mares, and a significant number of jobs to those states, and we are in danger of seeing major farms shutter their operations and move to friendlier jurisdictions. … So after years of outright neglect and hostility toward an industry that employs 100,000 Kentuckians, it appears that Senate Republicans are beginning to feel the heat from their constituents.

“As almost 70% of Kentuckians support putting VLTs at racetracks, and as their Senate majority has shrunk with the loss of two straight special elections, one would hope that Senate Republicans would finally listen to the majority of Kentuckians by supporting legislation to put our industry on a level competitive playing field. But sadly, it appears that Senate Republicans will continue to play political games with the livelihoods of so many hard working Kentuckians.”

Lourdes Baez-Schrader, a spokesperson for Williams, told the Lexington Herald-Leader there is no such plan for a constitutional amendment on racetrack VLTs.

“Senate leadership will not be advocating a constitutional amendment that will allow for the expansion of gambling,” she told the newspaper.

Baez-Schrader also told the Herald-Leader Senate leadership plans to meet with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association Oct. 20 to discuss the racing and breeding industry. Interestingly, one lawmaker who could attend is Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, who has said if racetrack gaming is addressed it should be decided via constitutional amendment.

Farish in his letter noted Williams has said a constitutional amendment isn’t needed. He alleged political games are being played.

“Senate Republicans are struggling to retain their majority, and several of their members are facing tough re-election fights next November,” Farish said. “It seems that Senate leadership has made the cynical decision to try and put expanded gaming on the ballot in an effort to drive up social conservative turnout in the next election cycle, hoping that the increased turnout will help their Senate candidates, in much the same manner that the gay marriage amendment helped Republican candidates a few years ago.

“It is truly disheartening that a handful of senators have decided that retaining their political power is more important than helping our entire state, helping our signature industry, and protecting the jobs of 100,000 Kentuckians."

The 2010 General Assembly session begins in early January. As of late October, no legislation on racetrack VLTs had been introduced.