Jones: Casino Bill 'Improperly Handled'

Kentucky casino legislation wasn't handled properly, a horse industry official said.

The chairman of the Kentucky Equine Education Project said the organization is “disappointed” not only in the failure of legislation calling for a constitutional amendment on casino gambling, but also with the way the measure was handled from the beginning of this year’s General Assembly session.

A proposal calling for nine casinos—some of them probably at racetracks--will not come up for a vote in the current legislative session, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said March 27. Just four days after declaring he hadn’t given up on the legislation, Beshear told reporters at an impromptu press conference outside his Capitol office: “For this session, it is dead.”

The governor unveiled his casino legislation in February, about a month after the start of the General Assembly session. That probably was a red flag, because Beshear made casino gambling part of his campaign to win election last year.

“We’re very disappointed,” KEEP chairman Brereton Jones said March 28. “I think we’ve thought for some time that it was improperly handled. I think the governor made a big mistake in not introducing the bill immediately as House Bill 1, and calling the Democratic leadership together and saying, ‘This is what I ran on, this is what I told the people I would do, this is what they said they wanted. We’ll pass this bill first, and then I’ll help you pass your bills.’

“But he chose not to do that, and didn’t introduce it until at least 30 days into the session, and by that time, the bill was already defeated. I really don’t know why he wouldn’t go ahead with it. When he gave his State of the Commonwealth address, he didn’t even mention it, and that sent a real negative signal. And then he sent some negative signals in dividing the Democratic Party in the 30th senatorial district. When they got behind a candidate, it was not the one many of the Democrats wanted down in the Democratic district, so they lost that Senate seat.

“So it was all blown up a long time ago, quite frankly. I think it’s going to be much more difficult (to pass in the future). I think it was extremely doable with a new governor showing the proper leadership, but for whatever reason, he chose to take a different approach, and I think it was the wrong approach.”

The horse industry backed Beshear in the 2007 gubernatorial election.

If lawmakers had agreed to amend the constitution to allow casinos, voters would have had a chance to ratify or reject the proposal in a November referendum. If a special session isn’t called—it doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar screen—another casino push would have to wait until 2010.

Beshear’s original amendment was significantly revised before passing out of committee in February. The new bill did not guarantee a number of casinos to be located at racetracks, which some horse industry supporters thought would further threaten the industry because it would create additional competition from free-standing gaming facilities.

Beshear made the announcement that the bill would not advance to the House or Senate after a brief meeting with leading Democratic lawmakers late in the afternoon of March 27. Churchill Downs Inc. president and chief executive officer Robert Evans March 28 expressed disappointment over the news.

“The choices we make today determine our future, and the failure to pass casino legislation for racetracks puts Kentucky racing at a significant, competitive disadvantage,” Evans said in a statement. “Kentucky is today the center of the Thoroughbred racing world, responsible for more than 100,000 jobs and $4 billion in annual economic impact. Whether Kentucky remains the leader in Thoroughbred racing in the future depends on the choices we make today. We appreciate the efforts of those lawmakers who both understand the issues clearly and who worked diligently to try to make this happen. We hope we can count on their support when this matter again comes before the Kentucky legislature.”

KEEP also issued a release after the Beshear press conference.

“This is no doubt a very good day for Indiana, Illinois, and West Virginia--as hundreds of millions of Kentucky dollars will continue to flow into their education, health care, and transportation systems,” the statement said. “It is also a very good day for the horse industries in Indiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Delaware, and others, as they will retain their significant competitive advantage over the horse industry in Kentucky.

“It is obviously not a good day for Kentuckians who would like to keep those dollars here in our state to pay for our education, health care, and transportation systems, who want to retain the 100,000 jobs and $4 billion per year that the horse industry provides our state, or those who would just like to have the opportunity to vote on this issue.”

Polls have shown the public wants to vote—pro or con—on casino gambling. Legislation, however, hasn’t even made it to the House floor for a vote. The Senate, led by Republican David Williams, has repeatedly sent the message the legislation has no shot.