Beshear: Gambling bill on hold because tracks oppose it

jpatton@herald-leader.comFebruary 5, 2013 

Gov. Steve Beshear

Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday a constitutional amendment to expand gambling is hung up on opposition from some racetracks and might not be filed this legislative session.

Beshear said that although horse breeders and owners support a plain up-or-down vote on expanding gambling, racetracks including Keeneland, The Red Mile and Kentucky Downs oppose a bill that does not guarantee racetracks a monopoly on casinos.

"The chances are still unknown and very uncertain because of the opposition of those racetracks. I feel that if those tracks were on board, we would have the votes in the Senate now to pass that type of amendment," Beshear said in a conference call with reporters. "I do feel confident that if all of the industry would get its act together and if these tracks would step up and support this approach, along with the breeders and owners, we would have a real shot at passing something this session."

The governor, who saw his gambling legislation die in the state Senate last year on a vote of 16-21, said he does not plan to mention gambling in his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night although several state senators are willing to file legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who filed last year's bill for Beshear, said Tuesday that for a constitutional amendment on gambling to move forward in this year's legislative session, "there must be two things: some level of agreement from the horse industry and the desire of the governor to push it as a priority bill of his. Absent that, I would say its chances are remote."

But Beshear said some senators who opposed the bill last year have indicated to him they could support this amendment.

He said he is delaying solely because the tracks are not with what he called "the vast majority of the horse industry," not to wait for tax reform, pension reform or any of the major issues that lawmakers are facing.

"The language that has the best chance of success in the General Assembly is what we would call a 'clean' amendment, one that authorizes expanded gaming, perhaps limits it to a certain number of locations, but does not guarantee racetracks a monopoly on casinos," Beshear said. "However, several of the racetracks outside of Louisville are opposing such an amendment on grounds that it doesn't guarantee them a casino or mileage protection from any kind of competition."

Beshear said that the amendment under discussion could guarantee a percentage of casino revenue to the horse industry for an "equine excellence fund," to be distributed to purses, incentives and other subsidies that he estimated could be $80 million to $100 million a year.

But Beshear said that hasn't been enough to persuade all the tracks. He said that he does not know where Turfway Park or Ellis Park stand but Churchill Downs in Louisville apparently is on board.

Neither Chip Bach, president of Turfway Park, nor Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park, could be reached for comment.

Brett Hale, Churchill Downs Inc. senior vice president for corporate affairs, confirmed Beshear's statement.

"We're supportive of the concept the governor outlined of passing a constitutional amendment that provides protections for racing and breeding without providing monopolies for racetracks in the constitution," Hale said. "We will continue to work with legislative leaders in Frankfort to see this issue through."

Beshear said that what he's heard from horse farms has been positive as well.

Beshear said, "Virtually every breeder and owner in the business has indicated they would support this type of amendment. But at this point those same racetracks are still opposed to an amendment even with that type of language in it."

Patrick Neely, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP), which has lobbied for expanded gambling, said his group has not had a chance to take a position yet on the excellence fund idea.

Corey Johnsen, chairman of KEEP and president of Kentucky Downs in Franklin, could not be reached for comment.

Keeneland was tight-lipped Wednesday on Beshear's remarks.

"We greatly appreciate the governor's continued support of our industry," said Julie Balog, spokeswoman for Keeneland. "We remain committed to finding solutions that will help move the Thoroughbred industry forward during these challenging times."

The governor left open the possibility that legislation could still materialize.

"We're still in conversation with senators and still in conversation with the racetracks but I can't predict at the moment whether any bill will be filed or what action may happen during the session," Beshear said.

He said he would support an amendment if one is filed.

"I certainly want them to file it if we determine we have a real shot at getting the votes to pass it," Beshear said.

Tracks say they are concerned the legislature would be able to cut into equine subsidies in the future, as has happened in other states, Beshear said. "When you put this language in establishing this equine excellence fund, I think that removes that argument," he said.

"I support this concept and if I ever see an opening to get it done, I'll sure take the opening," Beshear said. "But if the horse industry can't get it's act together, it's pretty difficult to accomplish something like this."

Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that opposes expanded gambling, quipped: "The governor seems very concerned that everyone knows what it is he's not going to talk about tomorrow night. I guess that means he's not going to try to push the issue — maybe by not calling a special session after a pension fix is not passed during the regular session. I may even not watch his speech tomorrow night so I can find out more about what he's not to going to do."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl

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