Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, on Thursday pre-filed his promised constitutional amendment that would allow up to seven video slots facilities in Kentucky. If passed, it would put slots on the November 2010 ballot.
"For too long, casino gambling has dominated the debate in Frankfort to the detriment of all other issues. Governor Steve Beshear has advocated very little, if anything, beyond the expansion of gambling. We must move forward so that the Governor can focus on working with the General Assembly in a bipartisan manner to address the serious public policy issues facing Kentucky," Thayer said in a news release. "My amendment would let the people decide if they wish to expand gambling or not."
But the bill has gotten a cold reception from the horse industry, which views it as hostile because it would not guarantee racetracks got expanded gambling. Instead, the racetracks would have to compete openly against other potential operators for a slots facility in their counties.
Also, the bill would require local voter approval, which would give opponents two chances to block slots.
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Horsemen have characterized Thayer's bill as a political move that offers too little too late.
Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said Thursday that the revenue split in Thayer's bill, which give a fourth to the operator, isn't a viable economic model.
"If one of the goals is to protect our signature industry, this bill gives a racetrack, even if it gets the license, almost no chance to succeed," Asher said. "It almost guarantees the racetrack would fail to compete. If the racetrack fails, how does that help the horsemen, how does that help the state? Nobody wins."
The horse industry has long lobbied for an expansion of gambling, and Beshear was elected on a pledge to put it to a vote of the people. But now horsemen and Democrats say a constitutional amendment would take too long, particularly one that could require multiple elections with no specific timetable.
Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, has said Thayer's bill is "dead on arrival" and that Senate Democrats support video slots at tracks instead.
Beshear on Wednesday called for passing such a slots bill this winter in the wake of Ohio's vote to allow four casinos, including one in Cincinnati.
"This is another stalling tactic, and our citizens are tired of it," he said. "They're tired of waiting for the better roads, new schools, and workforce support that gaming can provide. If Senate Republicans are serious about helping Kentuckians, they'll pass the legislation I proposed earlier this year as soon as they get to Frankfort."
Kentucky racetracks recently cut race dates by 25 percent to shore up average daily purses and keep full fields in races.
The horse industry says it needs slots now to compete with tracks in other states that have gambling-enriched purses and incentive funds.
To that end, Thayer's bill would guarantee $100 million or 25 percent of net slots revenue, whichever is greater, to purses, breeders' incentives, and marketing for horse racing.
Slots operators would get another 25 percent, and the state would get 50 percent for capital projects and capital bond payments.
"A constitutional amendment is the only way to absolutely guarantee that horsemen would keep a portion of the slot revenues they are entitled to. It would also contain gambling to counties that already have it and benefit the state by helping pay for capital projects and reduce our debt service thereby making our bonds more attractive to investors," Thayer said.
Thayer pitched the bill to horsemen when he and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, met with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association last month.
Williams, who does not support Thayer's bill, has promised an amendment of his own that would require gambling expansions to be voted on by the public, removing the question of whether slots could be permitted by statute. Legislation that failed in a special session in June would have put video slots at tracks without changing the state constitution, which some opinions from the state attorney general have said is unnecessary.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, reiterated Thursday that no amendment is needed.
"When I was attorney general, I issued an opinion stating that Kentucky's constitution did not need an amendment and current Attorney General Jack Conway has verified that in a second opinion. If Senator Thayer has evidence stating that that we need an amendment, we would consider it," Stumbo said. "However, I don't think he will because even Senate President Williams has said we don't need a constitutional amendment on this issue."
Family Foundation spokesman Kent Ostrander said Thursday that his group will support Williams' amendment but not Thayer's.
"We will be against the bill because it's bad policy. But without a doubt we agree that a constitutional amendment must be passed to expand gambling," he said.