With the new speaker of the House pushing electronic slots at racetracks as his top priority, it seems a safe bet a gambling bill will get a vote on the House floor in this session of the General Assembly.
Kentucky has three legal forms of gambling: the state-run lottery, charitable gaming such as bingo operated by churches and school booster groups, and parimutuel betting on horse racing. For more than a decade, racetracks, the horse industry and various others have pushed for either slots or casino gambling, but the issue has never gotten beyond a committee vote.
Now, says newly elected Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, the state and the horse industry need money more than ever and the best way to save both is with video lottery terminals.
Stumbo estimates slots at up to eight racetrack locations could within five years generate $349 million in tax revenue annually for the state and twice that for the horse industry, which is desperate for the money to compete with other states.
Even with Kentucky's bleak economic outlook prompting renewed interest in gambling, Stumbo's bill faces challenges.
A vote by the House Licensing and Occupation's committee is likely in the next two weeks, and House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said Stumbo might have the momentum to get his bill out of the House.
But then it would be likely to hit a brick wall that even the most ardent supporters of gambling have yet to breach: Sen. President David Williams.
The Burkesville Republican has said repeatedly that he won't back any move to expand gambling, so even if the slots bill could muster the votes to pass that chamber, the legislation would be unlikely to get out of committee, let alone get a vote on the Senate floor.
"I think if it could get to the floor, I think it would have a good chance to pass. There's a significant number of people in the Senate, including a number of Republicans, who would vote for it if it got to the floor," said slots supporter Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louis ville.
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, who sits on the Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee that probably would get the bill, doesn't see much chance of a Senate floor vote. "I think Senator Williams has made it very clear that he's not in favor of this, and I think that pretty well is the end of it on the Senate side," Buford said.
But there might be a way around Williams, if Gov. Steve Beshear is willing to risk it all.
Beshear could tell the lottery board — perhaps a newly reorganized board of his own appointees — to go forward with video lottery terminals under the same legal authority Stumbo's bill taps — the constitutional amendment that created the lottery.
That is something that Buford thinks could happen, and there is a precedent.
Buford, who said he is undecided on the slots legislation, cited a previous attorney general's opinion by Ben Chandler. Buford requested the opinion when Gov. Paul Patton tried unsuccessfully to bring in the numbers game keno via the lottery board. Buford said Chandler's opinion could give the governor enough wiggle room to act via executive order.
"My personal opinion is the governor can do this," Buford said, although he said it isn't a move he favors. "If there is such a high popularity for it, he might want to move on forward with it. ... So the governor could get what he wants, but it will take a strong will and an understanding of what he thinks the ramifications are of that."
Shaughnessy agreed that Beshear could go around Williams and slots opposition but said he hasn't seen any sign of that happening.
"I don't think there's any question the governor has the authority to do that on his own," Shaughnessy said. "Whether he chooses to exercise it or not ... that's up to the governor."
Beshear's office said the governor had not considered the option but did not rule it out.
"Our complete focus right now is on the significant budget shortfall confronting Kentucky," said spokesman Jay Blanton in a statement. "Although the governor continues to support expanded gaming, that issue — in terms of either legislation or executive action — simply is not on his front burner right now, given the current budget year challenges. We must necessarily be focused on solutions to the immediate problem."