Kentucky Industry Looks to 2004 for Track Gaming

With legislation to authorize racetrack gaming apparently dead during the current legislative session in Kentucky, the racing industry is expected to begin another campaign well before the 2004 session begins.

On Feb. 27, a bill that called for a constitutional amendment to let Kentucky residents vote on expanded gaming at racetracks failed to clear the House Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee. The measure said "any form of gambling" supported by the General Assembly could be offered at tracks or track-licensed facilities within a 50-mile radius.

On Feb. 21, the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee opted not to vote on a revenue-generating measure tied to electronic gaming devices at the state's eight racetracks. The House Licensing and Occupations Committee had earlier approved companion legislation that governed licensing of the devices.

It marks the second consecutive year the Kentucky racing industry has failed to earn solid consensus on expanded gaming despite a relative lack of opposition from the general public. A few industry stakeholders have called for a constitutional amendment, but if industry opposition to legislative approval for gaming is widespread, it has been concealed.

Turfway Park president Bob Elliston, the point person for the racetracks, said Feb. 28 the current General Assembly is intent on passing a budget that deals only with near-term shortfalls. He said the state's budget woes would not go away any time soon.

"It doesn't appear this General Assembly has made structural changes to solve the budget problem," Elliston said. "We will continue to push (for gaming) in the 2004 session, and we won't allow the next session to creep up on us."

The tracks, five Thoroughbred and three Standardbred, offered to pay the state hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes in advance for exclusive rights to gaming. The offer, however, came very late in the session, and legislators claimed the tracks' revenue projections might not have been accurate.

Elliston said it's up to Gov. Paul Patton to call a special session to deal with expanded gambling. (Chances for that appear slim because Patton is a lame duck.) Meanwhile, racetrack gaming continues to meet with opposition from Senate president David Williams, one of only a handful of legislators that have publicly been adamantly against it.

Elliston, whose track has lost 12 racing programs because of weather and track conditions this winter, said he expects the slide in Kentucky to continue given ever-present competition from riverboat casinos and racetracks with alternative gaming. In general, pari-mutuel handle has declined in the state for several years.

"It continues to be a difficult situation," Elliston said. "We'll continue to do the best we can to draw fans to the racetrack. We as an industry will continue to face the competition, and that competition will continue to be exacerbated."