FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear presented a plan Tuesday to amend Kentucky’s Constitution to allow up to seven casinos to open in the state, most of them at horse tracks.
The proposal generated instant opposition in the Bible-belt state where betting on horse races is a tradition but where casinos have been unwelcome.
For years, proposals to expand gambling opportunities have been debated in Kentucky but have never been able to get through the House and Senate.
“We believe that we have fashioned something that could and should and hopefully will pass both chambers,” the Democratic governor said Tuesday.
Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown is sponsoring the legislation that would begin the process of amending the Constitution. If approved by lawmakers, the proposal would be placed on the ballot in November to be ratified or rejected by voters.
“The issue of expanded gambling, after nearly two decades of debate, has reached a tipping point,” Beshear said. “Recently, the people of this state were polled by two separate organizations, including the state Republican Party. Both surveys found that more than 80 percent of the people of this state, regardless of whether they support expanded gambling or are against it, want the right to vote on it. The question is simple: Do we as leaders listen to our people or do we ignore them?”
Despite the long history of wagering on horses, Kentucky’s constitution frowns on casino-style gambling. And many Kentucky lawmakers have been reluctant to vote to change it, knowing they may face disapproving constituents in upcoming legislative elections.
To get through the General Assembly, the proposal has to be approved by a supermajority of lawmakers. That means 23 of the state’s 38 senators and 60 of the 100 representatives must vote in favor.
Sen. Tom Buford of Nicholasville said Tuesday he believes a majority of people want the chance to vote once and for all on whether gambling should be expanded, but he isn’t sure the support is there to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Buford, a Republican, said he probably would go along with a measure that allows people to vote on the issue, but the governor may have to work hard in his own party to get the current legislation passed in its current form.
“I don’t think the votes are there right now,” Buford said. “They are probably four or five short at the moment.”
Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Boyle County, said he is generally opposed to any effort to make gambling more widespread, and while he would wouldn’t mind letting people decide on gambling, he is not likely to vote for the legislation as currently proposed. Although he would ostensibly be voting on whether the issue could be on the ballot, Harmon said the current process would require him and other legislators to vote for the amendment as if they agreed with expanded gaming.
Harmon said he wasn’t sure what the House members would do with the legislation if it reaches them in the coming weeks, but he noted the difficulty in passing such legislation without specific provisions for where the money would go.
Whatever the outcome, Buford said the General Assembly ultimately was wasting time on what he called the “two-ton gorilla” in the room when they should be working out other major issues.
“We need to know up or down because this has become the kind of issue that doesn’t allow us to get important things resolved, like the budget and the road plan,” Buford said.
Beshear said Kentuckians now are wagering hundreds of millions of dollars in casinos in neighboring states.
“That money is being used to pay for all kinds of services and public infrastructure in those other states,” Beshear said. “As it stands, we might as well be backing trucks up to the Ohio River and dumping our people’s money into the water. We need to keep that money at home.”
That money, he said, could bolster key government services and to support the horse industry.
“As we all know, Kentucky’s horse industry, one of our signature industries, is under attack by other states,” he said. “Other states are using gaming revenue to boost purses and breeders’ incentives to lure race horses, brood mares and stallions away from the Bluegrass state.”
Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation, accused the governor of seeking a change to the constitution to aid an industry associated with the world’s elite.