Kentucky casino proposal faces contentious debate
By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The political handicapping as the Kentucky General Assembly opens its 2008 session revolves around the odds of bringing casinos to a state best known for horse racing, but where the lottery and bingo halls also thrive.
So far, efforts to legalize casino gambling in Kentucky have never gotten past the starting gate.
Now, newly-inaugurated Gov. Steve Beshear plans to lead the push for a referendum aimed at changing the state constitution to allow casinos. State lawmakers, who return Tuesday for the start of the session, ultimately will decide whether to put the measure on the ballot. Beshear, a Democrat elected in November, campaigned on the issue of permitting a limited number of casinos to open at racetracks and a few separate facilities along Kentucky’s border.
He’d like to accommodate gamblers like Jerry Metcalf and keep their money in Kentucky. Metcalf, a retired auto worker, was playing the horses recently at Churchill Downs’ off-track betting facility, and he also frequents a nearby Indiana casino to shoot craps. “I like them both,” he said. “It’s all entertainment.”
Beshear argues that hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians gamble at casinos perched along the border in Indiana and Illinois, which cash in through higher tax collections. The governor projects that Kentucky would reap about $500 million a year in extra tax revenue by allowing casinos to open.
Beshear has said he’d like gaming revenue allocated for such priorities as education and health care. Beshear is still crafting casino legislation, but a key lawmaker says there’s already plenty of skepticism.
“I see very little support in the House or the Senate at this juncture for an expansion of gaming,” said Senate President David Williams, a Republican who flatly opposes any effort to open casinos in Kentucky.
Adding their voices to the debate will be some influential groups.
Horse racing interests are among the most ardent supporters, saying the added gambling would benefit the state’s signature horse industry. Leaders say casinos would bring more people to the tracks, and a portion of the extra gambling revenue would bolster racing purses.
Bob Elliston, president and CEO of Turfway Park, a racetrack in the Cincinnati suburbs of northern Kentucky, said combining racing and casino gambling would be a good fit.
Turfway, co-owned by the casino company Harrah’s Entertainment, has plans for a “first class” casino along with restaurants, nightclubs and entertainment if casino gambling is approved, he said.
“We’re not going to just stick a bunch of slot machines in the back of the grandstand,” Elliston said. “That is not a competitive product.”
Meanwhile, some religious leaders are stepping up as casino opponents.
At its annual meeting in November, the Kentucky Baptist Convention approved a resolution opposing expanded gambling. The resolution warned that expanded gambling “will further encourage gambling addictions, crime, family destruction, personal irresponsibility and the corruption of government.”
The convention represents more than 2,400 churches with a total membership exceeding 780,000. The resolution urged churches to spread the word about the “dangers of gambling.”
The Rev. Paul Chitwood, pastor at the 2,000-member First Baptist Church of Mount Washington, said he considers gambling a sin, has denounced it from the pulpit before and expects to do it again.
“If there is spare money in our pockets, instead of paying for the gambling industry with the hopes of striking it rich, we should be … helping those who have needs,” said Chitwood, a past convention president whose church is just a short drive south of Churchill Downs.
The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, denounces casinos on social and economic grounds and calls it a regressive tax that would hurt the poor as well as businesses.
“The money doesn’t fall out of the sky,” she said. “It’s really a tax, and it’s going to cost $2 to $3 out of the general economy’s pocket for every $1 of revenue generated.”
The casino debate will unfold amid concerns of a major budget shortfall for state government.
Beshear sees expanded gambling “as a partial solution to the state’s intense budget problems, but he knows it will not be a quick fix,” said his spokeswoman, Vicki Glass.
Even if the legislature put a referendum on the November 2008 ballot and even if voters approved the constitutional change, it would be “some time” before casino revenue started flowing to the state, Glass said.
Faced with such a hot-button issue, some lawmakers are framing the looming debate as whether to simply give voters a chance to decide — which could be politically safer ground. Two polls by media organizations early this fall gave different results but showed no clear majority for or against casinos. However the polls showed overwhelming public support for putting a casino referendum on the ballot.
“I think a lot of people would like closure on the issue,” said House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who acknowledged opposition to casino gambling in his southern Kentucky hometown. “Most people at my church would like to vote against it, but a lot of them would like to vote on the issue.”
Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, is among the ranks of the undecided waiting for specifics, including how many casinos would be allowed, where they would be located and how the tax revenue would be spent.
“The thing we want to avoid is slot machines popping up at every little convenience store,” said Rand, whose district is an easy drive from a couple of Indiana casinos.
He said Beshear will have to take the lead if the referendum is to reach the ballot.
Among a recent evening crowd betting on simulcast horse races at Churchill Downs, opinions were divided on whether Kentucky should let casinos come in.
“I just think it’s a bad idea,” said William Hash, who had just cashed a winning bet. “There’s enough gambling around here as it is. And I just think it will make people poor.”
Jerry Durbin, a thoroughbred breeder from Oldham County, said Kentucky is missing out.
“It seems like Kentucky is kind of slow on doing a lot of things they should do,” he said. “When you have that kind of money going to Indiana, why not keep it here. People are going to gamble anyway.”
Published in The Messenger 1.7.08