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Casinos proposal facing long odds in Kentucky legislature




FRANKFORT

A revamped proposal to legalize casinos in Kentucky is facing long odds after being voted down Tuesday by a sharply divided House committee.

The move by the Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs puts the future of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s plan to boost state revenues with gambling taxes in serious doubt.

“I wouldn’t bet the house or the outhouse on it, I’ll tell you that,” said state Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, chairman of the committee that voted 5-3 against the proposal, stopping it from reaching the House floor for a vote, at least temporarily.

Beshear called on Democratic lawmakers “to get their act together quickly.” He said the proposal stands a chance of passing the General Assembly only with their unified support. Even if House Democrats were to approve the measure, it faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Two separate proposals were up for consideration on Tuesday, but the House committee couldn’t agree on either, despite the best efforts of Beshear. He had summoned House leaders to his office Monday night to try to jump-start the move.

Gambling opponents were emboldened by the turn of events.

“It’s a very significant and positive step for us,” said John Mark Hack, head of the antigambling group Say No To Casinos. “But it’s not over until it’s over. There’s no question that they will be back to make another run.”

Discord among House lawmakers had already slowed Beshear’s proposal to legalize casinos. The governor said taxes on casinos, if they were permitted to open in the state, could generate as much as $600 million a year for government programs in the cash-strapped state. If lawmakers approve a proposal, Kentucky voters would then have the chance to reject or ratify it.

The governor unveiled his much-anticipated proposal earlier this month to change the constitution to allow 12 casinos to open across the state, seven of which could be built at horse tracks. Lawmakers overhauled Beshear’s proposal. One rewrite would allow up to nine casinos in the state but does not mention whether they would be at horse tracks. Another also would allow nine casinos but spells out that up to five would be operated by horse tracks.

Horse owners who rallied in Frankfort on Tuesday told lawmakers that casinos at tracks would allow Kentucky to offer financial incentives for the state’s $4 billion equine industry. Money the casinos could generate would help Kentucky compete with other states that already bolster their racing purses and incentive programs with gambling revenues.

“This argument is about saving and protecting our signature industry,” said Craig Bandoroff, owner and president of the Denali Stud horse farm in Bourbon County.

Casino opponents who gathered for a news conference in the Capitol called on antigambling advocates to continue lobbying lawmakers to kill the proposal. Nancy Jo Kemper, head of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said the battle is far from over.

House Majority Whip Rob Wilkey, D-Scottsville, said he thinks lawmakers should try to reach an agreement that would benefit the horse industry by allowing casinos at tracks. Without that allowance, Wilkey said casinos would pull money away from the horse industry.

“I think that there are elements out there that want this legislation to die, and one way to kill it is to put something in it so threatening to the horse industry that they will rise up and try to defeat it,” Wilkey said.

The proposal has been a tough sale in Kentucky, a Bible Belt state where lawmakers have rejected numerous other casino proposals over the past decade.

Reacting to Beshear’s call for action, the House Committee on Committees appointed two additional Democratic lawmakers – state Reps. John Will Stacy of West Liberty and Tim Firkins of Louisville – to the committee considering the casino bill.

The Committee on Committees also removed another lawmaker, state Rep. Dottie Sims, DHorse Cave, from the casino committee.

House Speaker Jody Richards recommended the moves.

Stacy and Firkins, like Richards, favor the proposal that doesn’t specifically mention horse tracks. Sims, who voted against that proposal, said Richards’ action was clearly retribution.

Richards didn’t deny that.

“I want to get that amendment out of committee, and we intend to do it,” Richards said. “I don’t think it’s heavy-handed.”

Owens said time could be running out for the proposal. Lawmakers have only 27 days remaining in the legislative session.

“I don’t know where we go from here,” Owens said. “There’s going to have to be some giving by someone.”


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