Casino Details Wait for Another Day

Casino Details Wait for Another Day
Photo: File
Full-scale casino gambling is on Kentucky legislative agenda this year.

by Tom LaMarra and Esther Marr

Details on legislation to authorize casino gambling in Kentucky will have to wait for another day.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who made expanded gambling part of his campaign to win election in November 2006, made no mention of his casino plan during his Jan. 14 State of the Commonwealth address in Frankfort, the state capital. He instead used the about half-hour speech to discuss what he called “financially demanding times” in Kentucky.

Beshear has said limited casino gambling around the state--if approved via constitutional amendment--could raise about $500 million a year for the state. Even if the measure were to become law this year, revenue wouldn’t be realized until sometime in 2009.

Beshear and the General Assembly during the current session will work on a budget for 2008-10.

The absence of casino gambling from Beshear’s address drew mixed responses from legislators. The speech and post-speech interviews were broadcast on Kentucky Education Television.

“I think by not mentioning it tonight, the governor realizes his proposal probably won’t go anywhere in this session,” said Republican Sen. President David Williams, who opposes expanded gambling.

“His not mentioning it tonight did not take it off the table,” Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards said.

Richards and others suggested the casino plan will be discussed during Beshear’s Jan. 29 budget address before the General Assembly. The current legislative session runs through early April.

Little has been said publicly about the casino legislation. The horseracing industry, which led the legislative charge for expanded gambling in Kentucky in 2006, has only said it may opt to build casinos away from racetracks.

Thus far, there has been no word on the number of and exact location for casinos; the state’s tax rate; and how the horse industry plans to use its share of revenue. In most states with racetrack gaming, the bulk of casino revenue goes to the operator and horsemen in the form of purses and breed development programs. Little is used to fund other industry-related programs and organizations.

Representatives from the state’s Thoroughbred racetracks have begun pitching ideas surrounding the issue to legislative panels, but again, details are scarce.

On Jan. 9, racetrack representatives told a task force set up by Richards that they’re not certain where the casinos would be located if voters approve a constitutional amendment. They said they could propose to have some free-standing gaming facilities.

The task force was formed to help evaluate a variety of gaming-related issues. Beshear has said he intends to fashion the gaming legislation himself.

Among the racetrack representatives at the task force meeting was Robert Elliston, president and chief executive officer of Turfway Park and a board member of the Kentucky Equine Education Project.

“We are meeting with the governor’s office and working out details and providing perspective to him, and he to us, but at the end of the day, we’re going to follow the governor’s lead,” Elliston said. “I met with a key staff person for the governor who is evaluating the policy, and those meetings will continue.”

The General Assembly opened its 2008 session Jan. 8.

“We stand ready to respond to the members of the General Assembly as they seek questions,” said Elliston, who noted the horse industry had also been actively involved with the gaming issue through KEEP. “We meet frequently to talk about what we hear, and what is happening in other states, and we gather that information and compare it to the existing policy.”

John Sikura, owner of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm near Lexington and also a KEEP board member, said: “We’re sensitive to the fact that, if there’s a casino bill, it has to represent and benefit the entire state, so it’s not just us. We’ll advocate our position, but if it has a chance to pass, it has to represent everybody. We’ve agreed to speak with unity.

“It’s obvious (gaming) is a big issue—it’s an issue that has legs, and we hope and feel confident that it will be on the ballot. It’s very much in flux; but at some point, the components will solidify.”

Sikura said KEEP would continue to raise funds and offer various events to inform and educate Kentuckians on the issue. KEEP raised nearly $4 million at a stallion season auction in December, and chairman Brereton Jones said a portion of those funds would go toward articulating the organization’s gaming position.

“We want Kentucky to remain the number-one state in the union to buy, sell, raise, and race horses,” Sikura said. “The purses that people run for—that’s the lifeline of our economic engine—everybody benefits.”

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