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 long-held 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 will sponsor 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 un-approving 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.
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 the Constitution to aid an industry associated with the world’s elite.
“This bill is an attempt by wealthy horse track owners and casino interests to buy their way into the Constitution like box seats at a ball game,” Cothran said. “This state has never amended its Constitution to favor one industry like this. This bill writes political favors for the governor’s campaign contributors into the very words of the Constitution. The Constitution shouldn’t be used by politicians to reward their wealthy friends.”
The governor, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from horse interests, won re-election last year.
The legislation, which is expected to be filed Tuesday, doesn’t specify where the casinos would be built, other than that up to five will be at existing horse racing tracks and up to two at other locations more than 60 miles away from the nearest horse tracks.
The locations, the cost of licensing fees and the tax rates will be decided by the legislature only if lawmakers approve the constitutional amendment and voters ratify it.
Cothran said the legislation, as written, guarantees no additional revenue for education, health care, public safety or local governments.
“There are favors for fat cats, but no specific provisions for public programs,” Cothran said. “It just shows what money, power, and influence can accomplish.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said the House could make changes to the proposal if it gets through the Senate because of concerns “about giving these constitutionally guaranteed licenses to private businesses.”