FRANKFORT — A bid to allow casino gambling in Kentucky fell short of passage Thursday when the state Senate voted 21-16 against it. One senator was absent.
Gov. Steve Beshear's proposed constitutional amendment, introduced by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, would have let voters decide in November whether to allow up to seven casinos.
"I want to congratulate Senate President Williams," Thayer said after the vote. "He has orchestrated the defeat of this amendment and he deserves credit for doing that."
Thayer and Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, pressed to have the vote delayed because Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, was out of town. Without that pro-gambling vote, Palmer had conceded before the Senate came into session that the bill could not garner the necessary 23 votes to pass a constitutional amendment.
But Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said the vote would not be held off until Friday. Earlier in the day, Williams said that if the vote could get to 22 in favor, he would reopen the vote, but it fell well shy of that.
Williams did not speak on the Senate floor, but he opposed the bill.
"I think it's over," he said afterward.
"We need to go on. People need to lay this issue down. I don't think anybody needs to be dancing around, giving high fives. It's a very divisive issue."
Pointing to the vote margin, Williams said the outcome would not have changed if Neal had been present.
The governor, who defeated Williams to win re-election with a campaign promise to "let the people decide" on gambling, blamed the Senate president.
"Obviously, I am disappointed that several of the senators who had publicly said they would support letting the people decide did not follow through on their commitment to our citizens," Beshear said in a statement. "I am also disappointed that Senator Williams chose to sabotage the chance for our citizens to decide by scheduling the vote for today, when he knew that a senator who planned to vote 'yes' would not be in town."
The Senate debated the issue for more than two hours, with several senators, including Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, and Julie Denton, R-Louisville, making impassioned personal pleas against the legislation, which they said would hurt Kentucky families.
But Thayer and Palmer argued that the bill was necessary for the horse industry, which Thayer said was under attack from other states that have casino-fueled purses and breeder incentives.
Those states, Thayer said, all want "to knock Kentucky off its pedestal as the horse capital of the world. ... It's an industry that deserves our support."
Patrick Neely, spokesman for the Kentucky Equine Education Project, expressed disappointment.
"Kentucky's horse industry has undoubtedly reached a critical juncture," Neely said in a statement. "We therefore challenge those elected officials who professed support for Kentucky's signature horse industry, but voted against the bill, to help us find solutions to our industry's significant competitive disadvantage."
Thayer said a number of lawmakers who had told Beshear they planned to vote for the bill withdrew support once it became clear it could not pass without Neal.
"I did everything I could do ... and it ended in defeat today," Thayer said.
In addition to Thayer, five other Republicans sided with 10 Democrats to support Beshear's bill.
But four Democrats voted against it, including Jones, the grandson of a Baptist minister.
"I, in good conscience, could not vote for something that will damage more families," Jones said on the floor.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said the bill, which included 60-mile buffer zones around racetracks to prevent competition from free-standing casinos, "included too many variables."
"To me, it didn't guarantee the horse industry enough help," Webb said.
Provisions to limit five of the casinos to tracks and grant two to other locations were stripped from the bill in committee Wednesday.
With Kentuckians gambling an estimated $451 million annually at out-of-state casinos, that leaves the state with all of the problems of gambling but none of the tax benefits, Palmer said.
Sen. Walter Blevins, D-Morehead, said expanded gambling represented the only chance the state has for major increases in tax revenue.
"It won't take care of everything, but it will be a large Band-Aid," he said, calling it a voluntary tax.
But Kerr called it a "terrible, terrible idea — terrible public policy."
She said casinos at tracks would help only out-of-state casino and track owners "who are the richest people on the face of this earth."
Kerr said she supported the horse industry. But she argued that the bill would not help. "I do not represent those people who try to decimate our beloved horse industry," she said.
But key Democrats argued that polls done by the horse industry and the Kentucky Republican Party have shown people want the issue on the November ballot.
Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, said Beshear's overwhelming defeat of Williams in the gubernatorial race made that obvious.
"We are running at continual risk of irrelevancy to the citizens of Kentucky," Shaughnessy said. "If we do not put this in front of the voters, this issue will linger on."
But Thayer evidently won't be a part of it.
"I'm done," Thayer said when asked if he would try to attach a similar amendment to other legislation. But he declined to pronounce it dead.
"I think it's very difficult to predict in this building what's alive and what's dead," Thayer said. "I'm sanguine. Not mad; not going to take it personally."
In a statement, Keeneland chief operating officer Vince Gabbert thanked those who had worked for the bill: "We greatly appreciate the leadership of Governor Beshear, Senator Thayer and Senator Palmer on this important issue, but we are deeply disappointed in today's result."
Opponents also were forthcoming.
"Today's vote was not only a rejection of constitutional favors for fat cats, it was a bipartisan repudiation of the very idea that a rich industry should be able to engrave its name on our state's most important governing document," said Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation.
A major opponent of the bill, the Rev. Hershael York, pastor of Frankfort's Buck Run Baptist Church, said he was pleased with the Senate vote but disappointed at how some members voted.
"To me, this ought to put it to rest," he said. "I ought to be invited to preach the funeral over this bill at this Capitol. It's dead. It ought to stay dead. Only Jesus was resurrected."
York, who was criticized earlier this year for speaking against gambling during a prayer at a joint session of the legislature, said he is to give the invocation Friday in the Senate.
He said he was scheduled to do so long before Thursday's vote. He said his prayer Friday would be one of praise.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl