Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Would more gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

I'm not much of a gambler, but I don't have anything against it.

I'll probably lose a few dollars at Keene land this month, and a few more dollars at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, and I'll have fun doing it. Plus, I'll know I did my small part to keep beautiful horses grazing in bluegrass fields.

I buy a lottery ticket every now and then — when the jackpot gets really big — even though I know I probably have a better chance of being struck by lightning than cashing the ticket.

With the economy hurting and state government revenues far below the budget, the governor is likely to call legislators back to Frankfort this summer to consider tax reform. I hope they create real reform, because we badly need a tax system that produces enough reliable revenue to meet Kentucky's needs.

Odds are, the discussion will lead to more talk about expanded gambling. The drumbeat for slot machines at racetracks and for casinos has been getting louder for years, and this economy is causing more people to listen.

I wish I knew the answer to the big question: Would more options for gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

Let's look at the pros and cons. We won't get bogged down in numbers, because I think most of the numbers thrown around are little more than wild guesses. It's like many forms of economic forecasting: They make weather forecasting look like exact science and voodoo almost seem respectable.

First, let's take an easy argument: Slot machines or casinos would keep many Kentuckians from driving across the Ohio River to gamble. That's probably true.

Here's another argument: Expanded gambling would bring a lot of additional revenue to state government, perhaps reducing other tax burdens. That might be true, although I suspect that it would generate a lot less money than supporters claim.

The trouble is that the extra revenue reflects only one side of the ledger. For each million dollars of gambling revenue that comes into state coffers, how many million more must be shifted from the pockets of Kentucky gamblers into the pockets of the gambling industry?

What's the social cost of expanded gambling? In other words, how many children will go unfed? How much rent and child support will go unpaid? Sure, some of that new state revenue will go to offset gambling's collateral damage, but it probably won't be enough. When has Kentucky ever adequately funded social services?

Will expanded gambling grow Kentucky's economy? We will keep many of our current gamblers from taking their money across the Ohio River. We might even lure some gamblers to Kentucky from neighboring states.

But we won't be making Kentucky's economic pie much bigger; we'll just be slicing it differently. For the most part, new money spent on gambling would be money now spent on something else in Kentucky.

For all of those reasons, I've never thought government-assisted gambling was good public policy. Besides, gambling sends taxpayers the same unrealistic message that it sends gamblers: You don't need to work for the success you want; you just need to have Lady Luck on your side every now and then.

The best argument I've seen for expanded gambling in Kentucky is that it would help keep those pretty horses in bluegrass fields — and all of the jobs and economic activity they create. Not to mention the positive image the horse industry gives Kentucky. Horses are our international brand — and a good one, at that.

Kentucky's Thoroughbred industry wants racetracks to be allowed to have slot machines to provide more money for higher race purses and breeder incentives. That's because other states with expanded gambling are doing that, threatening Kentucky's pre-eminence.

Anyone who has been the parent of a teenager is suspicious of the "but everyone else is doing it" argument. In this case, though, the problem seems legitimate, even if the proposed solution is, at best, a short-term fix.

For one thing, I think it's naïve to think Kentucky's Thoroughbred industry will be able to keep gambling to itself. There's just too much money at stake. Other powerful interests will want slot machines, or full casinos, or some of the gambling money that the horse industry hopes to keep for race purses and breeder incentives.

Besides, what's the long-term future of any industry that depends on something else to prop it up? If Thoroughbred racing hopes to survive and thrive in the long term, it must create more fans. Other tracks must cater to fans the way Keeneland and Churchill Downs do. Racing must find a way to support itself, not find something else to support it.

Of course, all of that is easier said than done. And if it can be done, it won't happen quickly. Racing, like the economy, is where it is. So what should we do now?

Would more options for gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

It's a question we all need to ask ourselves, ask each other and ask our elected leaders. Because if there were ever a year it could happen, I'll bet this is it.

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