Kentucky Gaming Bill Advances, Moves to Full House

A bill allowing slot machines or video lottery terminals at Kentucky racetracks was kept alive Wednesday by an important procedural vote in a House committee.

If the bill had not been referred to the full House by Thursday, then its chances to be considered before the legislative session ends April 15 would have been slim to none.

The House Licensing and Occupations Committee moved the slot bill along on a stronger than expected 9-2 vote with three abstentions.

Several committee members, however, made it clear they were only supporting the bill so it could be discussed further, not because they supported alternative gaming at racetracks. After the bill receives two readings on the House floor, it will be sent back with amendments to the Licensing and Occupations Committee for more debate and a vote possibly on March 18.

"I have concerns about how this bill was presented," said Rep. Reginald Meeks, a Democrat from Louisville. "But I'm happy to support this bill with the understanding we will have the opportunity later to vote it up or down."

After the committee hearing Rep. Jim Callahan, the bill's primary sponsor, said he was encouraged by the vote and believes support for alternative gaming is building.

"I think the tide has been turning the past several days," said Callahan, whose Northern Kentucky district is near Turfway Park. "I'm hearing from more people every day. These are people who weren't sure they would be for us. I think more are seeing the budget and the budget is not pretty."

A study done by PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimated that revenue from about 8,000 gaming devices, a mix of slot machines and video lottery terminals, would generate $208 million in revenue by fiscal year 2003-2004, and up to $1.7 billion for the state over six years. Those numbers are enticing to legislators facing a $500 million budget shortfall this year.

Rep. Paul Marcotte, a Republican whose hometown of Union is near Turfway Park, said attitudes also are changing among his constituents. A poll conducted at the beginning of the session by his office found 75% of respondents opposed slot machines at racetracks.

"Today we have an entirely different situation with the trouble that Turfway Park is facing," Marcotte said. "My constituents are responding and are starting to support it."

While testimony and discussion were not anticipated, committee members did hear from Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen who urged them to support the legislation to keep Kentucky?s racing and breeding industry competitive.

"I love Kentucky, but as a businessman I cannot ignore the bigger purses at other states," Cauthen said, who owns Dreamfields Farm in Northern Kentucky. He said he won a $7,000 maiden claiming race on Jan. 25 at Turfway Park with a colt named Regal Event, but started him next at Mountaineer Park where purses are three times higher because of slot machine revenue.

"Kentucky risks becoming an 'also ran' in racing," he said.

Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, a Democrat from Lexington, sympathized with Cauthen but in the end said she could not support the bill as it stands.

"A bill this important needs a lot of discussion," Palumbo said. "We need to provide some incentive for the horse industry, but I'm not sure this is the right instrument."