FRANKFORT, Ky. – As the 2014 legislative session drew to a close with casino legislation dead, House Speaker Greg Stumbo vowed the issue would be his top priority the next year.
“We’ll put their feet to the fire come ’15,” he promised.
But Stumbo did not do that. Instead, he made the local option sales tax amendment House Bill 1, the top priority’s usual designation. Casino legislation was filed but died again.
Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, recently said expanded gambling is again a priority. On Monday he announced on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” program that he would file a proposal for a constitutional amendment authorizing casinos in the 2016 session.
“I think it’s time to let the people vote on it,” he said.
And in an interview later Stumbo promised, “I plan to push it pretty hard.”
But Stumbo’s announcement struck little fear in the hearts of opponents of expanded gambling, and the amendment’s chances for passage in the 2016 General Assembly may be long.
“Speaker Stumbo is a very capable politician, but I’m not sure resurrection is within his skill set,” said Martin Cothran, spokesman for the Family Foundation of Kentucky. “The speaker said this issue has got to be finally settled, but it has been settled. I think it’s been dead for six or seven years.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said, “I see this issue totally different than the speaker. It has a lesser chance of passage” in 2016.
“I don’t think there’s the interest, or uniformity, or consensus within the horse industry for this,” Stivers said. “Second, legislators aren’t really talking about it or focused on it because they don’t see it as a priority.”
But Stumbo says his proposal this time is different because his amendment answers the questions of average citizens:
�Where will the state spend revenues from casinos? Elementary and secondary education would get 40 percent; postsecondary education 30 percent; public pension systems 20 percent; and the horse racing industry 10 percent.
�How many casinos would there be? A maximum of seven. One in each of the six congressional districts and a seventh awarded “at large.”
�Where would they go? Only in counties with a population of at least 55,000 people. And voters within the county would have to approve before a license to open a casino is awarded.
Stumbo said he is willing to negotiate with lawmakers on those details. “But we will work it out and finally answer these three major concerns constitutionally, and I think that provides a comfort level for people,” Stumbo said.
Casinos, Stumbo has said, could generate as much as $500 million per year for Kentucky, but even if it turns out to be half that the new revenue would be significant.
The speaker also said that familiar arguments that casino advocates have made for years are stronger reasons than ever.
“Kentuckians are visiting casinos in other states in large numbers. One recent story by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting conservatively estimates they’re spending more than $3 billion a year at casinos just north of the Ohio River,” Stumbo said in a news release. “The time has come for voters to decide the expanded-gaming issue once and for all.”
But Stivers points out that the horse industry has appeared more divided than ever on the issue since just before the 2015 session, when an industry group once at the forefront of the push for casinos reversed its stance.
That group, the Kentucky Equine Education Project, announced last December it would not support legalization of casinos. A resolution unanimously approved by the group’s board endorsed instead the slots-like Instant Racing game that was started in 2011 and allowed to continue by a Kentucky Supreme Court order last year, although a lawsuit challenging its legality is still pending.
Instant Racing machines allow wagering on previously run races and are less lucrative than slot machines. So far they’ve been embraced by most Kentucky tracks other than Churchill Downs, which remains supportive of casinos.
Stumbo said Instant Racing is growing and churning out significant amounts for the horse racing industry, but next to nothing for the state. Instant Racing means gambling expansion is already here, he said, and the casino amendment will assure the state gets a significant share of what’s being wagered on expanded gambling.
Two Louisville Democrats who support an expanded gambling amendment emphasize different arguments than Stumbo on the the measure’s chances.
“I don’t see much so far that shows the chances have improved. But do I think some kind of fire can be built under it if you would use substantial amounts of income from it to help shore up the retirement program,” said Sen. Perry Clark.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey echoed that point, noting that the Kentucky Teachers Retirement Systems has been pressing lawmakers for a whopping $520 million appropriation increase next fiscal year to meet what its actuaries say is needed to deal with $14 billion in unfunded liabilities.
McGarvey also said because constitutional amendments can only be placed on the ballot during even-numbered years, lawmakers knew in this year’s session that they could put off action on the casino amendment and still get it placed on the November 2016 ballot.
“Now if we don’t act in 2016, voters couldn’t be asked the question until 2018 with any gaming program not started until 2019,” he said.
Any constitutional amendment requires yes votes of three-fifths of the House and Senate. In 2009 an expanded gambling measure passed the House but was blocked in the Senate budget committee.
But McGarvey says significant turnover in the Senate in recent years may have improved its chances there.
Cothran said the issue has no hope in either chamber and he said he’s not sure why Stumbo is pressing the issue again. “But it’s easier to pick up campaign contributions from any group if you are fighting for their cause,” Cothran said.
In July, three persons affiliated with Centaur Gaming, which owns racetrack casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville, Indiana, gave $2,500 each to the Kentucky Democratic party.
Two of those givers, Centaur executives Roderick Ratcliff and Kurt Wilson, did not return a phone messages seeking comment on why they made the Kentucky contributions. (KPA)
Tom Loftus, Courier-Journal