FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear and some of the state's leading Democrats say Kentucky needs to pass legislation this winter to expand gambling or risk losing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to Ohio.
Ohio voters on Tuesday passed a referendum that would allow casinos in four cities, including Cincinnati.
"Clearly, the time to act on expanded gaming is now," Beshear said Wednesday in a written statement. "Ohio citizens are going to reap the benefits of thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue. Ohio's decision reinforces the urgency to pass the video lottery terminal bill I proposed earlier this year."
Some of the state's leading horsemen also joined the call for swift passage of a measure that would allow video lottery terminals at the state's racetracks. While Kentucky has debated the issue for more than a decade, other states have acted and are leaving Kentucky behind, they said Wednesday.
But the state's top Republican says the expansion of gambling in Ohio might mean there won't be enough gambling business for both states.
"We're just not very well situated ... to be in competition with other states," Senate President David Williams said. He also noted revenue projections for slots at racetracks would be lower now that Ohio will also offer gambling.
Opponents of gambling have questioned whether video slot machines will solve all of racing's problems.
Williams and anti-casino groups called on Beshear to follow Ohio's lead and allow Kentucky residents to vote on whether they want expanded gambling. Williams, who opposes slots at racetracks, noted Beshear campaigned in 2007 on the promise that Kentucky voters could decide the issue.
"It is the only way to put a resolution on this issue," Williams said of a constitutional amendment. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has said he plans to file a bill that would allow such a vote.
Beshear, however, has said a constitutional amendment would take too long, and Kentucky's horse industry — which has had to cut racing dates — needs help now.
"Two years ago, I pushed for a constitutional amendment on gaming, and the Republican senators weren't interested," Beshear said Wednesday. "This is nothing but a stall tactic, and we cannot afford to wait any longer."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said it is likely he will file a bill this legislative session, which begins in January, so a constitutional amendment would not be required for the expansion of gambling at racetracks. A similar measure passed the House during a special legislative session this summer but died in a Senate Budget Committee.
"I think this puts pressure on the Legislature to act on an issue that we hope would save our industry," Stumbo said.
Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, said Wednesday he believed the Republican-controlled Senate had enough votes to pass the expansion of gambling during the special legislative session this summer. And he said there are votes now to pass gambling.
"I've always said there were votes in the Senate," Worley said. But the measure never made it to the Senate floor for a full vote because leadership wanted the bill to die, he said.
Williams countered that there have never been enough votes in the Senate for expanded gambling to pass. If there were enough votes, why did Beshear appoint two Republican senators opposed to the expansion of gambling to key positions in state government, he asked. Over the past four months, Beshear appointed Charlie Borders to the Public Service Commission and Dan Kelly to an open judgeship.
"They never had 20 votes, and they don't have 20 votes now," Williams said.
Kentucky racetrack and horse owners argued that because casinos are now legal in Ohio, they need slot machines at racetracks to remain competitive.
Northern Kentucky's Turfway Park, which is owned by Keeneland and Harrah's, will have to go head-to-head with a new casino in Cincinnati scheduled to open in 2012.
"It puts another casino directly in our marketplace to further exacerbate the situation we have with the existing mature casino environment," said Bob Elliston, Turfway Park president. "That's 12 out of 12 states that we compete with, and here Kentucky is, and we haven't taken any action."
Tuesday's Ohio vote makes it more likely the state will next vote to put slots at its racetracks, which were left out of the referendum.
"If they move forward with that ... that puts two additional competitors in our marketplace," Elliston said.
Lane's End Farm's Bill Farish, who is also chairman of the Breeders' Cup, has been one of the most vocal critics of the state's failure to allow racetracks to expand operations.
"I think it's continued bad news for the industry," Farish said of the Ohio vote. "I think it just heightens the pressure on our racing and breeding industry."
Farish said horse breeders, trainers and racetracks will continue their campaign to get racetrack-friendly video-slots legislation to a vote in the Senate.
"We're going to support the candidates that support our agenda." Farish said.