I ran for governor in 2007 because I truly believed that Kentucky was being left behind. I looked around at other states that were managing to grow jobs, promote a healthy business environment, educate their students while maintaining fiscal responsibility and I believed that Kentucky could accomplish those same goals with strong leadership and a clear vision.
I opposed expanded gaming in Kentucky. I did not believe the benefits would outweigh the costs and I discounted the positive economic impact that gaming would have on our communities and the state as a whole. I worried that expanded gaming would sully the tradition and fabric of our state.
Looking back it has become painfully obvious to me that I was wrong for several reasons.
The first is the most obvious. While I was campaigning against expanded gaming in Kentucky, I failed to fully realize that gaming is already prevalent. The only distinction is that the gaming facilities are located on the other side of our state borders: 83.5 percent of Kentuckians live within a two-hour drive of an existing casino. If we expanded gaming here, that number would only go up to 83.9 percent. That hardly counts as an expansion.
The second reason is that when I was campaigning in 2007, I felt that the majority of Kentuckians were against expanded gaming. It has become clear to me in the intervening years, however, that attitudes have changed. In fact, a recent Courier-Journal poll found that 87 percent of respondents were in favor of putting expanded gaming on the ballot. Those numbers are astonishing.
Third, and possibly the most irritating, is that surrounding states are taking advantage of Kentucky to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Citizens and politicians in Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and Ohio must have been laughing over the years as Kentucky failed to act and Kentuckians continued to deposit hundreds of millions of dollars in their communities. We have built countless roads and schools in neighboring states without so much as a thank-you in return.
Finally, I failed to take into account the number of Kentucky jobs that would be created by passing an expanded gaming amendment. First and foremost, these facilities have to be built, which would immediately generate thousands of construction jobs. Then they have to be maintained and operated, which creates jobs in everything from hotel management to delivery drivers, from accountants and advertising workers to people working the casino floor. There are also jobs created through tourism and convention business that casinos help attract. It is quite clear to me now that these are businesses with a large capacity to create jobs.
It is never easy to admit you were wrong, but it is clear to me now that I was wrong about expanded gaming. If our state is to become competitive, we must stop sending jobs and resources across the border. Gaming is already here, and we must benefit from it. We have debated long enough. The time is now to decide this issue once and for all.
Billy Harper, president/CEO of Harper Industries in Louisville, is a former gubernatorial candidate.