Beshear to work with Senate Republicans on gambling amendment

Gov. Steve Beshear will work with Senate Republicans to craft his constitutional amendment to expand gambling.

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said Thursday that he had a one-on-one lunch meeting with Beshear on Thursday to discuss gambling and other legislative issues.

"We had a very good meeting. We were both very frank and honest," Thayer said.

Based on that discussion, he plans to work with Beshear on language that both chambers can pass during the session, which begins Tuesday.

Beshear echoed that. "I had a very good meeting with Senator Thayer today, and we will indeed be working together on the gaming amendment," he said. "Senator Thayer and I share the same goal: to get an amendment on the ballot in November. Kentuckians clearly want to vote on this issue, and I look forward to working with Senator Thayer to bring that vote to our citizens."

Thayer chairs the Senate's State and Local Government Committee, which has jurisdiction over proposed constitutional amendments; he said he has not committed to sponsoring Beshear's bill.

"Governor Beshear and I have the same goal: to get this issue on the ballot in November 2012 and to preserve and protect Kentucky's racing and breeding industry," Thayer said. "We pledged to work together in a good-faith effort to get this passed."

Thayer said he plans to talk to other Senate Republicans about "what works for them. I asked the governor to give me a little bit of time to work on it. We've not come up with any agreement on the language yet but the process is under way."

Beshear told reporters Wednesday that he expects a "simple" constitutional amendment to be introduced in the first week of the session, with enabling language to let lawmakers work out details later. The governor also has said any casino efforts must be tied to racetracks.

But Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said Thursday that Senate Republicans probably can't support an amendment that specifically grants a casino gambling monopoly to racetracks.

"Obviously, the governor has an obligation to racetracks, to the breeders," Buford said. "If that's how it comes out, I feel certain a Republican will file a different amendment with just casino gaming. ... I don't know that one can pass that's exclusively for the racetracks."

Buford said polling by the state Republican Party has shown that voters want the issue on the November ballot. The GOP poll showed that 80 percent of those surveyed want to vote and that 53 percent would support a general casino amendment.

A separate poll released Tuesday by Keeneland and Churchill Downs showed that 64 percent of those surveyed would vote for a constitutional amendment to allow casinos at the eight tracks and one additional location with local voter approval. That poll found that 87 percent of those surveyed want the issue on the ballot.

"I think the Republicans will take charge because we've had polling done that shows we have to do something," Buford said.

Kentucky's horse industry wants expanded gambling to boost purses and breeders' incentives to match those in other "racino" states. New York, which opened a casino at Aqueduct racetrack two months ago, expects to pour $45 million from video lottery terminal revenue into a 30 percent increase in purses next year.

Kentucky lawmakers have debated expanded gambling for more than a decade, and Beshear was elected four years ago on a pledge to pass casino gambling. But previous efforts faced opposition from conservative and religious groups and lacked legislative support.

Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, said Thursday that he has been in discussion with Beshear on language for the amendment and could file something next week or the week after.

"I'm willing to be the point guy," Palmer said. But Palmer also said he might not be the primary sponsor. "It may be me, it may be someone else. If I'm not the sponsor, I'll definitely be a co-sponsor."

Palmer said his preference would be to tie casino gambling to tracks. "Obviously, that's a logical starting point, if our effort is to protect the horse industry," Palmer said. "Whether you do it through exclusivity of licenses or through the enabling legislation, that's going to be a point of discussion."

Palmer said that the language under discussion is "pretty concise — to allow the General Assembly to pass enabling legislation for expanded gaming in this state."

Because Democrats are a minority in the Senate, Palmer said, it will take a bipartisan effort to get the necessary 23 votes to pass the chamber.

"The people of this state have spoken. They're ready to decide this issue," Palmer said. "Now it will be incumbent on us to come up with a compromise on what that language is in order to put that question on the ballot for them to have their opportunity."

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