Franklin County

Gambling bill now has better odds

FRANKFORT — Legislation to expand gambling at Kentucky racetracks appears poised to clear the state House in coming weeks, a key milestone advocates have never before reached.

Still, the odds remain long that slot machines will ka-ching in Kentucky any time soon.

Newly elected House Speaker Greg Stumbo on Friday again filed legislation to allow video lottery terminals, or slots, at Kentucky racetracks. But unlike previous years, a key Republican leader says the bill could pass the House.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said in an interview Thursday night that he thinks Stumbo's bill can get the 60 votes it needs in the Democratic-dominated chamber.

"With the new speaker, there's such euphoria over there right now. He can probably get 60 votes ... if he bears down," Hoover said.

With committee chairmanships and seat assignments to dole out, Stumbo has "got the tools" to pass the bill. He said he thinks Stumbo probably framed his committee choices with the video lottery terminal legislation in mind.

Even if Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, succeeds in the House, the bill must still win support from a super-majority of the Republican-led Senate.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has said repeatedly that he sees no sentiment for approving expanded gambling in his chamber.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the legislation would bring millions of dollars in new revenue while easing Kentuckians' taxes by eliminating the state's portion of the motor vehicle and boat tax.

Stumbo estimates that slots at racetracks would generate $700 million a year in gambling receipts, but only about $125 million in new money would flow into the state's coffers, based on preliminary figures. An additional $110 million would replace revenue lost by scrapping the state's portion of car and boat taxes.

Meanwhile, racetracks would keep $394 million, with another $67 million going to supplement race purses and horse incentive programs..

Slots could be placed at up to eight tracks, with Keene land and The Red Mile sharing in Lexington.

The new state revenue would be used for primary education; drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation; reimbursing counties for the cost of housing state prisoners; treating problem gambling and environmental cleanup.

The legislation would give the state 25 percent of the first $100 million in revenue from slots, and 35 percent of anything over that. The rest would go back to the tracks in the form of purse supplements, breed incentives, incentives for other kinds of horses, and track revenue.

"The time for this bill is now, when we desperately need money in state government, when our families need tax relief at home and when our horse farmers need a boost before we lose the commonwealth's signature industry," Stumbo said in a statement. "This legislation is nothing more than the extension of the lottery, and it only applies at racetracks, where gaming is already taking place."

Stumbo said other states are "beating us to the finish line" by using gambling revenue to boost their horse industry.

Stumbo said the bill would head first to the House Licensing and Occupations Committee, which will be chaired by Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder.

Stumbo said he expected the committee to approve the bill within two weeks of when the General Assembly returns on Feb. 3.

"I think it'll get out of committee, absolutely," said Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, who is on the panel.

She said she trusts Stumbo's official opinion, issued when he was attorney general, that the expansion of the lottery to include electronic slot machines does not require a separate constitutional amendment.

But former House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he still thinks a a constitutional amendment, which must be approved by voters, would be required. Richards said he has never been for any expanded gambling unless "it's a vote of the people."

He said he would not vote for Stumbo's bill without that provision.

The horse industry voiced support Friday for the bill.

"Speaker Stumbo has developed a sensible proposal that creates new Kentucky jobs, saves jobs at risk in the horse industry, and provides substantial new revenue for the state without raising taxes," said Nick Nicholson, Keeneland president, in a news release.

The board of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, which met Friday, also released a statement, saying the bill could provide $7 million to the would-be Breed Authority for new show rings, expanded trails and breed incentives.