Keeling: A better bet in 2014?

Gambling's chances may be better in upcoming session, or they may not be

Herald-leader columnistDecember 15, 2013 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — This and that as we prepare to enjoy another holiday season (and pay for it shortly thereafter by having to endure another General Assembly session):

Whenever a General Assembly session draws nigh, the talk naturally turns to expanded gambling. Most years, the talk hasn't produced any action beyond the filing of a few bills doomed to suffer the fate of the dreams brought to the doorstep of Mona Lisa in the song made famous by Nat King Cole: "They just lie there and they die there."

Occasionally, though, actual votes have been taken in one house or the other.

Since we're still talking about expanded gambling as a possibility rather than a reality, even that guy Rip who shares his last two names with some expensive stolen bourbon could figure out the ultimate outcome of those votes if he just woke up this morning.

So, is there any reason to be optimistic state lawmakers in the coming session will emulate ol' Rip and open their eyes to the reality of what higher purses in "racino" states are doing to Kentucky's Thoroughbred racing industry?

Sure, there's always reason for optimism going into a session. (Pause for the laughter to subside.)

Sarcasm aside, there are at least a few reasons to feel a little bit positive about expanded gambling's prospects in 2014.

The racing industry, which has often quibbled internally in the past, is apparently united this time in accepting the fact it can't have a monopoly on expanded gambling and is willing to support a relatively "clean" constitutional amendment that leaves most of the details, including protections for the industry, to enabling legislation — if lawmakers approve the enabling legislation at the same time they approve the amendment.

A clean amendment has a better chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate. Indeed, Majority Caucus Chairman Dan Seum is expected to introduce the legislation backed by the industry. Democratic Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark already has pre-filed his versions of an amendment and enabling legislation in the House.

But since the Senate in the past has killed a House-approved slots bill and defeated an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Damon Thayer (before he became majority floor leader) Speaker Greg Stumbo has indicated any new attempt at expanded gambling must pass the Senate before the House will consider it.

And the very timing of dealing with this issue in 2014 could help remove some of the partisan politics normally in play between the Democratic House and the Republican Senate.

If voters were to approve a gambling amendment next November, even temporary casino facilities couldn't be up and running until sometime in 2015, when Gov. Steve Beshear will be the lamest of lame ducks and would have minimal to no opportunity to use the extra revenue to pad his gubernatorial resume.

With no sitting governor reaping a benefit, with lawmakers' recent commitment to fully fund state pension plans, with a bleak revenue outlook threatening to cause more budget cuts on top of year after year of budget cuts, and with both parties hoping one of their own will succeed Beshear, lawmakers from both parties might be more inclined to approve a gambling amendment to ease the pain for the next governor (and themselves) just in case he or she is one of their own.

Now that I've raised the hopes of my fellow expanded-gambling supporters, I'll crush them with a reminder that, after Tuesday's special election in the 7th District, Democrats now have just a 54-46 majority in the House. Not only does that make them susceptible to losing control due to some conservative party switchers, it also probably makes them very leery of revisiting 2004, when they sacrificed some of their own incumbents on the altar of a controversial constitutional amendment by caving in on the same-sex marriage issue.

The Senate used to be the roadblock on the gambling issue. Now, it may be the House.

Speaking of Tuesday's special election in the 7th District, called because former Rep. John Arnold resigned amid allegations he sexually harassed female legislative staffers, the Democratic majority on the committee Stumbo appointed to consider the expulsion or censure of Arnold took a bad situation for their party and made it worse by shutting the panel's work down without taking any testimony, considering any evidence or doing much of anything else except conducting a couple of closed-door sessions with the legal counsel they hired.

Sure, Arnold's resignation may have rendered the committee powerless to do anything to him. Sure, there's an ongoing ethics investigation of the allegations as well as pending civil litigation. But none of that absolves House Democrats, who remain in the majority for the moment, from the responsibility of cleaning their own linen in better fashion than using Arnold's resignation to call off the committee's work.

There's just one perception this action can create in the public's mind, and I would be very surprised if Republicans aren't already thinking about how many ways they can use the word "cover-up" against Democratic incumbents in next year's legislative elections.

Reach Larry Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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