Kentucky Senate President David Williams

Kentucky Senate President David Williams

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War of Words Over KY Racetrack Gaming Issue

Racing gaming legislation is caught in a political battle in Kentucky.

by Patrick Crowley

Kentucky Senate President David Williams has continued a war of words with leading Democrats over the politics surrounding proposed racetrack gaming in Kentucky. But Williams, a Republican, has also apparently drawn the ire of Kentucky’s top GOP leader.

Sources told The Blood Horse U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is worried Williams’ posture on racetrack gaming has hurt the GOP’s relationship with the horse industry. McConnell wasn’t available to comment, and in an interview, Williams said he doesn’t believe the senator is upset with how the issue has unfolded in Frankfort.

“I don’t believe he said that,” Williams said of McConnell’s supposed concerns. “How do you determine how an entire industry feels? I would say people who want slot machines are displeased. But many people agree with those Republicans and Democrats who are against slot machines.”

Williams has gone on the offensive against Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who is working to elect Democrats to the Senate with the long-term hope of seeing a vote on racetrack video lottery terminals in the General Assembly’s upper chamber. Williams said Beshear has “poisoned” Frankfort’s political atmosphere.

“This governor, who said it didn’t matter whether it was a Republican idea, or a Democratic idea, has no idea of what he’s doing as far as the political atmosphere up here,” Williams said in an interview with Kentucky Public Radio. “He has poisoned it. And he should refrain from doing that.”

Beshear defended his politicking.

“I’m the governor, and I’m a Democrat, and when elections roll around I support Democratic candidates,” Beshear told The Blood-Horse. “I’m going to continue to do that. That’s part of my role, that’s part of the freedom I have.

“I expect Republican officeholders to do that, and they ought to expect that I’m going to do it. That’s our process. After that’s over, I fully expect Republican officeholders to step up with me as a Democratic officeholder and sort of forget that, and now we have to work together and try to find common ground to move this state forward.”

Williams and other Republicans claim Beshear is maneuvering to take over the Senate.

A June special legislative session called by Beshear failed to produce passage of the racetrack VLT bill he helped draft. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House by just two votes but died in the GOP-held Senate budget committee.

The day after the session, Beshear vowed to elect Democrats to the Senate, telling gambling supporters at Keeneland that “we either have to change senators’ minds, or we have to change senators.”

In July, Beshear appointed long-time Republican Sen. Charlie Borders to a job with the Public Service Commission. That opened up a special election in eastern Kentucky’s 18th Senate District, a seat Borders had held for nearly 20 years.

Democrat Robin Webb, a state House member who supports racetrack gaming, won a tight race over Republican Jack Ditty in the Aug. 25 special election. With Webb’s win, the Republican’s majority in the Senate fell to 20-17-1.

Beshear pointed out that while he and Democrats helped Webb in her campaign, leading Kentucky Republicans, such as McConnell and Congressman Geoff Davis of Boone County, aided Ditty’s campaign.

Beshear may appoint Senate GOP Floor Leader Dan Kelly to an open seat on the local circuit court. Kelly, who voted against the racetrack VLT bill in the Senate budget committee, has told Beshear he is interested in becoming a judge. If Kelly is appointed, another Senate special election would be held before year’s end.

Williams said he fully expects Beshear to continue offering Senate Republicans jobs so Democrats can control the chamber.

“The governor is methodically going about giving jobs to Republicans to replace them not just with any Democrat, but Democrats that favor his slots proposal,” Williams said.

To what extent the Republicans’ relationship with the horse industry is damaged is hard to decipher and quantify. The industry is made up of about 100,000 people working directly or indirectly with the industry and is segmented along diverse lines, from wealthy owners, breeders, and trainers to blue-collar farm hands, backstretch workers, racetrack employees, and others.

But in the Aug. 25 special election, the horse industry supported Webb financially with campaign contributions. The Kentucky Equine Education Project, a leading horse industry proponent of racetrack gaming, used a 527 campaign fund to work against Ditty. GOP sources said their estimates show KEEP’s 527 spent about $80,000, but those numbers won’t be known until the end of the year.

Williams said voters need to remember that during the June special session he offered a competiing proposal, legislation he said would have used general fund dollars and a tax increase to provide more money to the racing industry. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat and racetrack gaming supporter, didn’t call Williams’ bill for a vote even after it unanimously passed the Senate.

Williams also said Beshear has broken a campaign promise that he would support letting the voters decide the issue of expanded gambling.

Democrats blamed Williams for the demise of the bill, though Williams said he had no vote on the Senate budget committee and that the bill was given a fair hearing in the committee.

“(Beshear) is blaming me as an obstructionist,” Williams said, “when it is the governor who is breaking his campaign promises.”