FRANKFORT — Some high-ranking members of the Republican-led Senate might make a push in coming days for a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling at Kentucky horse racetracks, according to a prominent Central Kentucky horseman who is a major Republican donor.
"It appears that Senate Republicans are beginning to feel the heat from their constituents," Bill Farish, general manager of Lane's End Farm in Woodford County, said in a letter sent Monday to news media outlets. "The word around Frankfort is that Senate leadership is preparing to offer up the old idea of putting forth a constitutional amendment to permit gaming at Kentucky race tracks."
Farish's comments came one day before three top lawmakers — Senate President David Williams, Senate State and Local Government chairman Damon Thayer and Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley — are scheduled to meet with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders.
Lourdes Baez-Schrader, a spokeswoman for Williams, R-Burkesville, confirmed Monday that the three senators will meet with the industry groups "to listen to what they have to say." However, she said, "Senate leadership will not be advocating a constitutional amendment that will allow for the expansion of gambling."
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Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he has been asked to attend Tuesday's meeting with Williams. "I know Senator Williams has a presentation and I want to be there to listen to it," Thayer said. He declined to say whether a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling would be discussed.
Worley, D-Richmond, said he has not heard about a possible Republican-led push to get the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment for expanded gambling.
Republican Senate leaders have been criticized by the horse industry for failing to pass legislation that would allow expanded gambling in the form of slot machines at racetracks.
Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled House approved a measure to allow video lottery terminals at the tracks, but it died in the Senate budget committee. That effort did not include a constitutional amendment, which would require the approval of voters.
David Switzer, executive director of the horse-industry group, said Williams and Worley were expected to attend Tuesday's meeting, and he had heard that Thayer may attend. He said the meeting will be closed.
Farish, who supports expanded gambling, said a constitutional amendment is unnecessary, and Republicans are preparing to support one for political reasons.
"It seems that Senate leadership has made the cynical decision to try and put expanded gaming on the ballot in an effort to drive up social conservative turnout in the next election cycle, hoping that the increased turnout will help their Senate candidates," Farish said.
Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed similar concerns about the possibility of a vote on a constitutional amendment.
But Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe said he does not understand the reluctance.
"Polls show us the people want to vote on the issue," he said. "We are in a democracy. The safest and most democratic way to deal with this issue is to let the people vote on it."
Farish noted in his letter to the media that voters could not vote on a constitutional amendment until November 2010 at the earliest. If voters approved it, expanded gambling would not become a reality until at least 2011, he said.
In an interview Monday, Farish, a member of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, said a constitutional amendment probably would not be welcomed by the horse industry.
"It was a great idea six years ago," Farish said. "But it's just pure political game-playing, if that is in fact what they're going to propose."
Gov. Steve Beshear campaigned for expanded gambling in his 2007 gubernatorial run, saying voters deserved the chance to decide the issue.
He is now focused on trying to help Democrats regain control of the Senate in an effort to push expanded gambling.