FRANKFORT — Democratic House leaders are considering a plan to finance school construction projects with revenue generated by slot machines at racetracks, a move opponents described as a thinly veiled attempt to win support from otherwise reluctant lawmakers.
"I'm a proponent of building schools," said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. "We're looking at a proposal which we believe can act as an economic stimulus package and also help eliminate some of the awful ... schools we have in the state."
Stumbo couldn't say how many schools might be affected and emphasized that no final decisions have been made on the issue. As proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear, the slots bill would generate an estimated $298 million a year for the state's General Fund.
House Republicans immediately called the tactic "shameless."
"As the governor said, this is the time for an 'up or down' vote; let's do that," said House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown. "Let's don't try to sweeten the pot to get an extra vote."
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, acknowledged that the state has a problem with poor school buildings but said "there won't be any linkage in any bill that is considered in the Senate between this much-needed school construction that we need and the passage of any gambling money."
Stumbo countered that it only makes sense for lawmakers to designate how money generated by slots should be spent.
Meanwhile, a key Democrat predicted that the bill will ultimately win approval in the Democratic-led House.
The House budget committee has enough votes to pass Gov. Steve Beshear's expanded gambling bill, possibly as early as Wednesday, said chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford.
Rand also said he thinks the measure will clear the full House, a prediction that House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has been unwilling to make.
"The members are a bit reluctant to commit to something they haven't seen yet," Stumbo said of the slots bill when pressed for a prediction on Kentucky Educational Television on Monday night.
Hours before the special session began Monday, Attorney General Jack Conway issued a non-binding legal opinion that said lawmakers don't need to amend the Kentucky Constitution before allowing slots at racetracks.
Proponents of the slots bill applauded Conway's legal opinion, which relied heavily on a 1931 Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling to justify expanded gambling without a constitutional amendment.
"The attorney general has re-affirmed our belief. Now we look forward to getting this legislation passed," said Patrick Neely, the executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project or KEEP, a horse industry group.
Five previous attorney generals have been asked to weigh in on the controversial issue. Stumbo, a former attorney general, said in 2005 that an amendment was not needed. Stumbo's opinion was contrary to previous attorney general opinions.
Conway's opinion says that in 1988, voters approved an amendment to the constitution that allowed lawmakers to later establish the Kentucky Lottery Corporation. Then, in 1990, the General Assembly amended the lottery statute, but not the constitution, to ban casinos and other gambling games.
The General Assembly has the power to rescind its own ban on casino-style gambling, the opinion says.
Specifically, Conway's opinion cites a 1931 case involving the Jockey Club, in which the appeals court upheld legislation authorizing pari-mutuel wagering on horse races.
The appeals court ruled that the term "lotteries" and the original prohibition against them in the Kentucky Constitution of 1891 was narrowly defined. The framers of the constitution did not intend to outlaw all types of wagering, the opinion says.
At a news conference announcing his opinion, Conway, who is running for U.S. Senate, said no one tried to influence or pressure him.
Conway also noted that the Executive Branch Ethics Commission has said he can issue an opinion on the issue even though his father, F. Thomas Conway, currently serves on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and is a horse owner.
It is his job to give the General Assembly legal advice on how their actions may be interpreted by the courts, Conway said. "My staff and I simply followed the law and allowed it to lead us to the proper legal conclusion on this issue," he said.
Anti-casino activists blasted Conway's decision on Monday, saying it was political grandstanding. Many have warned that they will sue the state if slots are passed without a constitutional amendment.
"We believe that it was a political decision, not a legal one," said David Edmunds, a policy analyst with the Lexington-based Family Foundation, a conservative non-profit.
"This is probably the biggest scam Kentuckians have seen in the past few decades," Edmunds said. "If this opinion says that in 1988 voters voted for slot machines and just didn't know it, then Jack Conway has been complicit in a scam against Kentucky voters."
Williams, an opponent to expanded gambling, said he didn't think a constitutional amendment was needed. However, he said, he didn't think the Kentucky Lottery Corporation had the authority to oversee slots at racetracks.
Anti-casino groups plan to have a rally opposing the move on Tuesday. KEEP will hold a pro-slots rally on Wednesday.