Talk of Kentucky Casinos Ramping Up

Discussion of expanded gambling is ramping up in Kentucky.

Discussion by Kentucky lawmakers on a public television program revealed a split on casino gambling. Meanwhile, a legislative working group hopes to have a report on the issue ready for the state General Assembly by Feb. 1, 2008.

The legislators, speaking during the Nov. 19 edition of Kentucky Tonight on Kentucky Educational Television, talked about the ramifications of a constitutional amendment on casino gambling as well as pre-filed legislation that calls for casinos at 12 locations in the Bluegrass State. The horse racing industry, one of the proposed vehicles for expanded gambling, was hardly discussed during the program.

Democratic Rep. Joni Jenkins, who chairs the working group, said legislators would consider two bills--one to authorize a statewide referendum, the other to enable casino gambling should the constitutional amendment pass. Among the issues facing legislators, she said, are whether casinos would be publicly or privately run; whether casinos would be located only at racetracks or tracks and non-track sites; how the amendment would be worded; and whether there would be local-option votes should the measure pass statewide.

“We feel it’s time to take a fresh look at this issue,” said Jenkins, who represents part of Jefferson County, home of Churchill Downs. “Everything is back on the table again.”

Expanded gambling has been discussed on and off by the General Assembly since the early 1990s. Jenkins said the Legislative Research Council has so much information on the subject, it won’t be necessary for legislators to take trips to other states for a first-hand look at gambling establishments.

Democratic Sen. David Boswell, whose district includes Owensboro in western Kentucky, pre-filed the gaming legislation. The bill calls for 12 casinos, nine of them with full casino gambling--slot machines and table games--and three with just gaming machines.

The measure calls for four non-track casinos in the northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest portions of the state near interstate highways and borders with other states. Five racetracks would get full casinos and the other three gaming machines only.

Companion legislation field by Boswell deals only with the constitutional amendment, which doesn’t define locations. The horseracing industry, in a legislative push in 2006, proposed a constitutional amendment with specific locations and defined percentages on how revenue would be cut up.

“That will be part of the debate,” Boswell said.

The casino issue got legs when Democrat Steve Beshear won the November election for Kentucky governor. Beshear made expanded gambling part of his campaign and indicated the gubernatorial race indicated the public wants to vote on the issue.

Republican Rep. Ken Upchurch, who represents part of southeastern Kentucky, said that’s not necessarily the case. He said the election was more about not re-electing Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher than a mandate for Beshear or a casino vote.

Said Republican Rep. David Floyd, whose district lies south of Louisville: “I personally don’t believe it was a mandate to ‘please let us vote.’ I believe people would just assume not vote on (casino gambling) if it were stopped in the General Assembly.”

The Kentucky House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans. Jenkins said the measure would need 60 votes to pass the House, and there are about 30 “strong anti-votes” among the 100 members of the House.

Projections from 2006 had the state’s share of gross gaming revenue at $400 million to $500 million a year. Previous bills set the state’s share at 35%, one of the lowest in the country.

It remains to be seen how much revenue Kentucky casinos would generate given the fact four of the seven states that border it offer casino gambling. Upchurch argued gamblers, many of them from Kentucky, would have to lose $1.5 billion for the state to make $500 million in tax revenue.

The role of the horse industry in fashioning gambling legislation in Kentucky is unclear. Casino opponents believe there are other ways to assist the industry, whose casino push has been centered on a need for purse money and breed development funds it struggles to generate through pari-mutuel means.

Legislation in Kentucky and other states hasn’t addressed promotion and marketing of racing in conjunction with casino gambling.

“There is a lot we do for the horse industry now, and a lot more we could do,” Floyd said.