LOUISVILLE — Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday a bill allowing video slot machines at Kentucky racetracks would pass the full state Senate if given the chance.
"I'm pretty confident that we will have enough votes to pass the bill if it gets to the floor," he told reporters after a speech at the Kentucky Association of Counties' annual conference in Louisville. "That's not saying all Democrats will vote for it or that all Republicans will vote against it. I think we will have some Republicans vote for it if it gets there."
But Beshear declined to say how many Republicans would support such a bill. Republicans' grip on the chamber has slid to 19-17 with one independent and an open seat that will be determined in a Dec. 8 special election.
Last year, a bill that would allow expanded gambling at tracks passed the Democrat-controlled House but failed to get out of the Senate budget committee.
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Beshear said he would spend part of his time leading up to the 2010 General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 5, meeting with lawmakers of both parties to gauge their support.
He said he believes political conditions are better to pass such a bill now than they were last year. Among other things, Democrats narrowed the gap in the Senate when former state Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, won an August special election for a vacant Senate seat.
Beshear said the results of a special election between former Democratic Rep. Jodie Haydon of Bardstown and GOP Rep. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon in the 14th Senate District also will be "one of a series of things that we look at."
State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has offered a counterproposal for a constitutional amendment that would make it a requirement for voters to have to approve any expanded gambling measure. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has proposed an amendment that would allow slots at the racetracks, which also requires voters' approval.
Beshear called that "a delaying tactic."
"They want to try to get some issue on the ballot in November 2010 that will bring out their voters as heavy as possible because they're worried about losing control of the Senate. And they ought to be," Beshear said.
Williams couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
Beshear, who used most of his 23-minute speech to 400 local officials to outline the budget crunch facing Kentucky, also made his pitch for gambling.
"In my opinion, we must protect this industry," Beshear said of the horse industry, which would receive a cut of gambling proceeds under his plan. "Why? Not because there are two to three rich guys in it. But because there are 100,000 hardworking Kentuckians who work in that industry every day."
And he said it could provide "several hundred million" to the state coffers.
John Riley, a Republican magistrate from Spencer County, said he understood why Beshear wants local officials supporting the governor's gambling proposal but said he disagrees with the concept.
"I don't believe that anybody can gamble their way to prosperity," Riley said. "To me, it seems slot machines are only going to suck the money out of people's pockets that could be going to Kentucky businesses."
Beshear warned that money would be scarce in the next two-year budget as employers continue to shed workers, causing tax revenues to plummet. State economists predict a $161 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, and lawmakers will probably need to find an extra $1 billion in the next biennium to continue spending $9.1 billion a year.
Meanwhile, the solutions to budget crunches are becoming more difficult now that the state's "rainy day" fund is empty and federal stimulus money is slated to disappear by July 2011. All the while, the amount of money demanded by health care programs, state retirement systems and prisons will continue increasing, Beshear said.