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Beshear says he’s still shy on needed votes for casinos




FRANKFORT

A proposal to legalize casino gambling by amending Kentucky’s constitution is still shy of the 60 votes it needs to clear the state House, Gov. Steve Beshear told reporters Tuesday.

Beshear acknowledged the proposal, which was one of his top legislative priorities heading into the 2008 General Assembly session, is facing an “uphill climb” getting onto the ballot and before Kentucky voters this November. Nevertheless, Beshear said the measure has support from at least 50 House members and could get more.

“We all agree that at the moment we’re not there,” Beshear said. “But we’re still hopeful that we can come up with the votes necessary.”

In mid-February, Beshear proposed amending the state constitution to allow up to 12 casinos throughout the state, including seven at race tracks and five freestanding locations. Beshear said his proposal could generate $500 million in upfront license fees and $600 million per year once the casinos are fully operational.

The additional money could help Kentucky’s ailing financial outlook, Beshear said, at a time when the state is facing a projected revenue shortfall of about $900 million over the next two years.

Voters would have the chance to either reject or ratify the proposed amendment before it took effect.

But Beshear’s election-year gambling proposal met with almost immediate discord.

Some lawmakers have argued over whether there should be specific protections for Kentucky’s horse racing industry written into the legislation. Others have disagreed over whether casinos should have to be approved locally in areas where they would be proposed.

The gambling amendment nearly stalled last month after dissension among Democrats.

As it stands, the proposal calls for nine casinos throughout the state but does not guarantee any would be tied to race tracks.

Beshear said he met Tuesday with Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate about the proposed gambling amendment. The governor said he and Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, DRichmond, agree “very strongly” that the proposed amendment should give the horse industry specific guarantees.

“The casino amendment is still very much in play,” Beshear said. “It’s an uphill battle, and it has been for some time, particularly since we had the fractious episodes within House leadership. I think that set us back, but we’re trying to heal wounds and move on.”

Worley said that if the proposed amendment cleared the House in its current form, he would support amending it to help race tracks.

“I do not support nine freestanding open casinos that people start bidding for,” Worley said. “The racing industry, the thoroughbred industry of Kentucky, cannot outbid the casino industry.”

House Speaker Jody Richards, however, said a proposal like that would have a tough time winning approval from his chamber. Still, there were more than 50 “yes” votes toward the minimum 60 needed for passage, Richards said.

Time’s running out, though, Richards noted.

“It would have trouble if we can’t do it by next week, I think,” said Richards, D-Bowling Green. “Unless some miracle happens.”

Rep. Rob Wilkey, the House majority whip, said he thinks the votes “are possibly there” for passage. Wilkey said there were currently “well above 50” lawmakers considered in favor of the gambling proposal.

“The problem is you want to have just a little bit of a cushion, and I think that you may not have any cushion,” Wilkey said.

If the plan clears the House, it’s not going to clear the Senate, said Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

“If the rapture came and there were enough of them left here, it might,” Williams said. “But short of that, I don’t see it happening.”


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