87 percent of Kentuckians want vote on expanded gambling, new poll says

Kentuckians overwhelmingly support putting a casino-gambling constitutional amendment on the November ballot, where it probably would pass, according to a new survey conducted for racetracks and horse-racing interests.

According to numbers released Tuesday, 87 percent of Kentuckians want to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling. Only 10 percent of those surveyed said they opposed a vote.

Also, according to the poll released Tuesday, 64 percent would vote in favor of the amendment.

"Once again, a new poll shows Kentuckians demand an opportunity to vote on expanded gaming," Gov. Steve Beshear said. "The call for a direct vote by the people of this state has only gotten stronger over the last few years, and we should not make our citizens wait a moment longer to have their voices heard."

The Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that opposes expanded gambling, questioned the poll.

"This survey was bankrolled by the gambling industry," said Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation. "It showed what they wanted it to show."

Beshear said one of his top priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 3, "will be a constitutional amendment to take the gaming question directly to our people. It's time for Kentuckians to decide the state's future on expanded gaming."

Beshear has said that any expansion must include racetracks and the horse industry.

Potential ballot question

The poll released Tuesday asked how people would vote on potential ballot language to "allow regulated casino gaming at eight existing horse racetracks and one additional location subject to voter approval in the city or county where it would be located. The money would be used for the benefit of education, health care, public safety, local governments and the horse-racing industry."

According to the results, 64 percent would vote for such an amendment, and 32 percent would vote against it. The pollsters said that the low figure of 4 percent who are undecided "suggests that Kentuckians are pretty much decided on this issue, and there is little likelihood of major movement."

Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the poll's numbers are no surprise.

"I've been saying for a long time that this issue needs to be resolved one way or another by the people," Thayer said. He said legislators are awaiting Beshear's specific proposal.

There has been some debate about whether legislation would need to start in the Senate or the House, which has previously approved expanded gambling without a constitutional amendment.

Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, said he expects that most Senate Democrats will support a constitutional amendment for expanded gambling.

"Of course, the devil will be in the details," Palmer said.

Specifics of the survey

The survey by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group in Washington was conducted Dec. 12 to 14. It was a statewide survey of 612 Kentucky voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, according to the group.

The pollsters also said that among those who would vote for the proposed amendment, 46 percent said they would "definitely" support it, indicating that "the pro-amendment side is very close to the 51 percent majority even before the campaign has officially started."

The pollsters said they tested four negative messages on "how casinos would increase crime, prey on the poor, not deliver the state revenue and lead to more gambling." After emphasizing those points, the survey found support for the amendment was at 63 percent.

Pollster Fred Yang said that even among the 32 percent who said they would vote against expanding gambling, 71 percent of them want it on the ballot for a vote.

Yang said the poll also tested pro and con statements about casino gambling.

Statement A said, "By putting the issue of casino gaming on the ballot in a statewide election, the state legislature is not approving casino gaming, but merely giving the voters of Kentucky the chance to decide for themselves."

Statement B, which included language from recent remarks by the anti-casino Family Foundation, said, "Any state legislator who votes in favor of putting the issue of casino gaming on the ballot is actually casting a vote for expanded casino gaming in Kentucky. If a state legislator is truly opposed to casino gaming, then he or she should vote against putting the issue on the ballot."

Yang said that even after being read those statements, 80 percent of those polled wanted a vote on gambling.

Support for a vote remained strong among Democrats, independents and Republicans, but it slipped most among Republicans, of whom 15 percent opposed a vote.

Tracks happy with results

"We are encouraged by, and would agree with, Kentuckians' strong desire to participate in a statewide vote on casino gaming," said Vince Gabbert, vice president and chief operating officer for the Keeneland Association. "Kentucky's horse industry continues to face increasing competition from neighboring states that use revenue from casino gaming to provide incentives to racing and breeding operations. By acting now, we have a chance to stem the tide and keep Kentucky's signature industry from falling further behind."

Gabbert said the tracks plan to continue working with Beshear's office on potential amendment language. He said he thinks a bill could be introduced in January. Lawmakers do not plan to introduce enabling legislation at this point, Gabbert said. And tracks do not plan to press for a specific percentage of any gambling revenue, he said.

"There's no sense trying to cut up the pie until it's made," Gabbert said.

"In today's political climate, to have 87 percent of voters demonstrate support for any issue is remarkable," Brett Hale, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs for Churchill Downs Inc., said in a statement in response to the poll. "We look forward to sharing this data with decision makers in Frankfort and working with the governor and the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment and subsequent enabling legislation that ensures the protection of Kentucky's signature horse industry for generations to come."

Foes call it a 'push poll'

The Family Foundation called the survey a misrepresentation of the constitutional-amendment process.

"Anytime you ask people whether they want to vote on something, they'll say 'yes,' " Cothran said. "People always want to have their say, no matter what the issue is. But putting it this way misrepresents the constitutional-amendment process in this state and misportrays it as a ballot-initiative process, which it isn't. For all practical purposes, this is a push poll."

He questioned what the response would have been had other questions been asked: "What would the response have been had they asked questions like, 'Do you think Kentucky should write into its constitution a full or partial monopoly for casino-style gambling to horse tracks that are owned by millionaires?'"

The group called for the public release of all the questions on the survey, and the order in which they were asked, all of which are factors that could affect results.

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