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Instant Racing unlikely to finish legislative race

FRANKFORT — Less than a week after a proposal to allow "Instant Racing" gambling came flying out of a Senate committee, the bill has been sidetracked and looks unlikely to finish the legislative race.

Senate President David Williams predicted late Tuesday the proposal would be stripped from House Bill 368 on Wednesday by the Senate State and Local Government Committee, but the panel did not take up the measure during its noon meeting Wednesday.

Committee chairman Damon Thayer, who favors allowing electronic Instant Racing games at the state's racetracks, said he put the bill on hold because he did not have the votes to pass the version of the bill that he prefers.

"Nobody's happy. I'm not happy," said Thayer, R-Georgetown, who last Thursday added language that would allow racetracks to install electronic gambling on randomly chosen previously run races. "There are challenges present in building a consensus on this bill, so we're going to pass over it, perhaps for another time."

Although Thayer pulled the bill off Wednesday's agenda, the horse industry and Gov. Steve Beshear have signaled interest in allowing Instant Racing through regulatory changes that don't require legislative approval. If allowed, the measure could generate millions of dollars to beef up racing purses and incentives for Kentucky-bred horses.

Attorney General Jack Conway said in a January opinion that Instant Racing could be made legal without action by the legislature.

Racing commission chairman Bob Beck Jr. on Tuesday indicated the commission probably would pursue the necessary changes. Beshear, who pushed for electronic slot machines that look very similar to Instant Racing machines, also said he supports Instant Racing.

"I think while it won't cure a lot of problems, it's a little bit of help to the tracks. And it will help the purse situation to a certain extent," Beshear said. "And every little bit helps. So I like the concept, and I hope that they will end up passing something that will allow us to do it."

But Thayer acknowledged anti-gambling opponents are likely to challenge Instant Racing in court however it is approved. "Based on the events of the last few days, I think there's a lawsuit whether this passed by statute or by regulation," he said.

Opponents say any form of expanded gambling must be approved by voters in a constitutional amendment.

Martin Cothran, spokesman for Say No to Casinos, said the lack of legislative action is an indication of weak public support. "I think it would be bad form for the executive branch to go ahead and do something like this now that the people have spoken," Cothran said.

Public reaction apparently played a role in the bill's demise, even though it appeared to have bipartisan support last week. At least two committee members who voted for it in committee said Wednesday they probably would have voted against it on the Senate floor.

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, and Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, both elected in special elections last year that hinged on expanded gambling, said they would have changed their vote to no.

Thayer said anti-gambling opponents rallied against the bill, which made some members of the Republican caucus "skittish" about voting for it on the floor.

"I felt very good when this bill came out of committee last week," Thayer said. "I've been talking about Instant Racing as a lone voice in the wilderness now for about three years. It got momentum. It seemed like we had bipartisan support to move the bill forward as a solution to offer some help and some hope to the horse industry."

Williams, the Senate president, said racetracks also share part of the blame for the bill's demise. "The tracks really don't want anything but slot machines," said Williams, R-Burkesville. "They are not particularly interested in helping purses or breeders' incentive funds."

Kentucky track officials, who contend they need some form of expanded gambling to compete with other states that have it, denied Williams' allegation.

Although the tracks have not pushed for Instant Racing, Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said they were ready to get behind the bill.

"I don't think it was the horse industry that derailed it. There was a significant segment in support, especially some of the smaller tracks. We were looking at it," Asher said of Churchill Downs.

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