FRANKFORT — The Republican-led state Senate could end a special legislative session on Friday without considering Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to allow slots at racetracks, warned Senate President David Williams.
Such a move might endanger all four of the items Beshear placed on the session's agenda, including a proposed fix for a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Williams' alert came hours after the House budget committee approved the measure to allow slots at racetracks in a 19-9 vote, setting up the first floor vote that an expanded gambling bill has gotten since lawmakers began debating the issue more than a decade ago.
Several House Democrats who support the slots bill said it should find the requisite 51 votes needed on the House floor if everyone who privately says they're for it is willing to step forward in public Friday.
However, Williams, R-Burkesville, said there is not enough support in the Senate to pass the slots bill, so there's no need to waste taxpayer money — roughly $60,000 a day — extending the special session beyond one week, he said.
"I'm not giving any kind of ultimatum," Williams said. "I'm giving them an opportunity, an opportunity to accomplish all of their business and leave on the fifth day. ... Because the slots bill, you know, you can stick a fork in it, it's done."
Beshear has asked the General Assembly to consider four proposals: allowing slots at racetracks, rectifying the budget shortfall, overhauling of the state's economic development incentive programs and creating an authority to oversee construction of mega-transportation projects.
Williams has proposed attaching the governor's budget proposal to the mega-transportation project bill, which cleared the House earlier this week.
He would also attach to the economic incentives bill, which has also won approval in the House, his own proposal to help the horse industry expand purses and breeders incentives by taxing lottery tickets.
The House could then approve the amended measures Friday, he said.
"I'm not saying that we're going to leave here tomorrow," Williams said. "What I'm saying is, is that they're going to be given an opportunity to address every issue that has been presented to us tomorrow."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, responded that Williams has previously promised to give the slots bill a fair hearing in the Senate.
"We're working through the legislative process and doing what we think is best for Kentucky, especially for our children and our signature horse industry," Stumbo said. "We trust the Senate will give these matters fair consideration."
Williams has blasted the House for earmarking tax money generated from the slots proposal for more than $1.3 billion in proposed school and university projects, calling it "vote-buying."
"We need to get out of town before some people in the House get in trouble," Williams said Thursday. When asked to explain, Williams said "you know what I mean by that."
Several lawmakers who voted for the bill in the House budget committee said they oppose expanded gambling, but they're excited by the $1.3 billion in proposed school and university projects. Others said they only voted "aye" to finally allow a full House vote.
"The time has come to send this particular bill to the floor," said Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who voted for the slots bill Thursday but said he plans to vote against it Friday. Simpson opposes the bill because it gives a monopoly on slots to racetracks, rather than allowing freestanding casinos to compete.
Bills to authorize slots at Kentucky's eight horse racetracks have been debated in Frankfort for years, and one of them previously succeeded in a House committee vote. But the sponsors never could round up enough allies to merit a House floor vote.
Originally touted as a way to defend Kentucky's horse industry from other states' slots-fattened racetrack purses and breeder incentives, Stumbo's bill this week found tough opposition in the General Assembly, prompting him to select a new focus: school children.
Stumbo repeated for the House budget committee Thursday his plan to use $143.8 million a year of the state's tax revenue from slots to pay off $1.3 billion in bonds for school and university projects. Most of the projects have not been identified thus far, but Stumbo says they include replacements for crumbling schools classified as Category 5 schools because they are at least 40 years old.
"We'll never have this opportunity again to literally build schools all across this state and wipe out some of these awful facilities where we see our children going to school," Stumbo said.
Under the bill approved Thursday, the racetracks would operate seven slot-machine facilities around the state — in Lexington, Keeneland and the Red Mile would share a facility — with net revenues split between the tracks (about 57 percent for the first five years), the state (about 28 percent for the first five years) and the horse industry (about 15 percent). A ninth racetrack could be opened and issued a slots license as well.
Although the slots facilities eventually must be located on or adjacent to the track properties, for the first two years, while planning and construction is under way, temporary slots facilities could go anywhere in the same county as a track, according to the bill. The bill exempts the newly created "racinos" from local zoning laws.
Slot machines could operate throughout the year regardless of whether horses are running. In fact, the bill authorizes racetracks to request a "temporary reduction" in their live racing once they have slots, with the permission of related Thoroughbred or Standardbred horsemen's groups.
The Kentucky Lottery Corp. board of directors would get enormous power to license and regulate the racinos as well as their equipment suppliers and workers.
The Lottery would administer a trust fund that collects the net revenue from all slots and accepts the state's share, which Stumbo estimated would start at $194 million a year, about $20 million more than Beshear projected in his recent slots proposal.
Williams' proposal — which Beshear declined to place on the agenda for the special legislative session — includes using other means to increase purses and breeders' incentives. Williams said there have been some minor changes to that plan, the details of which will likely be revealed at a committee hearing on Friday.
Williams said he has not talked to the House about his proposals.
"I hope it is received well," Williams said. "It will address every issue that was put on the agenda and we'll have done it in five days."