Republican Sen. Damon Thayer

Republican Sen. Damon Thayer

Anne M. Eberhardt

Thayer Defends Position on KY Gaming Bill

Kentucky Sen. Damon Thayer acknowledged he has been under fire over the slots bill.

Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, under heavy fire from some in the Kentucky horse industry for not being publicly proactive on racetrack gaming legislation, on June 25 outlined his position on the issue and claimed that a “political war” would only hinder the industry.

Thayer, considered “racing’s senator” because of his background in the industry and work on racing and breeding issues, was referred to negatively several times as “the senator from Scott” during a horse industry rally at Keeneland June 24, two days after the racetrack gaming bill died in the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee. Thayer isn’t a member of that committee.

Thayer acknowledged his name has been “taken in vain” and “dragged through the mud” in light of recent developments. He said his position on gaming has been well-known for years.

“My position has always been it is best handled by a constitutional amendment,” said Thayer, whose district is located north of Lexington. “There were questions about the bill’s constitutionality. I met with numerous horse industry people, constituents in my district, and (the Kentucky Equine Education Project’s) lawyer to talk about the constitutionality of the bill.

“I have concerns, as do many others.”

The bill, which called for video lottery terminals at racetracks, got the OK from Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway after a review by his staff. It was supported and pushed by two Democrats, Gov. Steve Beshear and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who both believe a constitutional amendment isn’t needed for Kentucky Lottery Corp.-operated VLTs.

Thayer told The Blood-Horse he requested Senate leadership send the VLT measure to the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which he chairs. The decision was made to send the bill to the same committee that heard it in the House of Representatives, he said.

That committee--Appropriations and Revenue--is heavily Republican. The measure died in that committee on a largely party-line vote.

Thayer indicated he was prepared for a vote on the Senate floor. He said he planned to introduce floor amendments “to improve the bill and get it to the point where I could support it.”

His amendments called for a countywide local-option vote in counties in which racetracks are located; an increase from 14.5% to 16% in the amount of VLT revenue that would go to purses and breed development; the appointment of four legislators to the Kentucky Breed Authority and a mandate to make racehorse rescue programs a priority; $1 million for a workers’ compensation for jockeys; and $1 million for a statewide horse racing marketing fund.

Thayer said if the bill had made it to the floor and the amendments adopted, he would have voted for it, with reluctance because of the constitutional question.

“There’s a lot of anger about it not getting out of committee, but I still believe there were only 16 or 17 votes for slots (in the full Senate),” he said. “I do have allegiance to the horse industry, but I took an oath to uphold the constitution of Kentucky. I take that oath seriously, and I think that position ought to be respected.”

Beshear, some legislators, and racing industry officials believe the legislation would have gotten the 20 votes necessary for passage. Thayer’s comment indicates how close a call racetrack gaming is in the Kentucky General Assembly, but Republican Senate President David Williams already has declared the issue dead for 2010. Democrats disagree.

Thayer told The Blood-Horse breeders’ incentive funds wouldn’t have come about in Kentucky without his effort, and that he supported the horse industry by delaying action on and reworking legislation on the matter of dual agency at sales. He also noted he worked to get the Breeders’ Cup tax exemption bill included in broader economic development legislation during the recently ended special session.

“I know people are disappointed, but for me to get up and fall on my sword on a slots bill without a constitutional amendment would have marginalized me, and I couldn’t have helped the horse industry in the future,” Thayer said in explaining his position.

Thayer was asked if legislators truly believed Williams’ plan to tax out-of-state pari-mutuel wagers was viable. The House and Beshear rejected it on the grounds it could put Kentucky tracks at a disadvantage and perhaps even reduce handle.

Thayer said he “raised concerns about that,” but many legislators believed the strength of Kentucky’s racing product and the additional purse money raised through the tax would carry the day. He also said he has no problem supporting a tax on the Kentucky lottery to raise money for purses.

“There were some good ideas that deserve further review,” Thayer said.

Among those ideas are a tax on in-state advance deposit wagering bets and Instant Racing, he said. Instant racing machines resemble VLTs but are pari-mutuel in nature because they are based on recycled races that determine the outcome of video games.

Thayer was asked if politics killed the racetrack VLT bill. He said it was primarily about questions on constitutionality, moral opposition to expanded gambling, legislators reflecting the views of constituents, and concerns about how racetrack gaming has played out in other states.

“People are concerned horse racing would become a sideshow,” Thayer said. “We have disagreements with leadership all the time. I’ve been characterized as marching lockstep with David Williams, but I spent two weeks talking to senators about their personal issues (with the VLT bill). Most of them were against for the reasons I stated.

“Some have suggested since I made my living in horse racing, I should be automatically for the bill. But to vote on a bill because it benefits me personally is a violation of law.”

Thayer said he solicited an opinion from the Legislative Ethics Committee and was told there was no violation as of now.

Thayer wouldn’t speculate on whether racetrack gaming will come up again in January 2010, or whether something will be done to help the horse industry in the interim.

“It’s too soon to tell—tempers are pretty hot,” he said. “People need to take a step back and respectfully consider the convictions and opinions on both sides of the issue. If it turns into a political war, it will be later rather than sooner that the horse industry can be helped.”