I've had several seriously ill friends and relatives suffer through chemotherapy. They do it because it is a short-term poison that often results in a long-term cure.
With the General Assembly now meeting in special session, I can't help but wonder if the proposal to allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks doesn't amount to chemotherapy in reverse: a short-term cure that could turn out to be long-term poison.
It's easy to dismiss some of the arguments for slot machines, such as balancing the state budget and funding new school buildings. Expanded gambling won't pay for state government and education in the long run any more than it has in other states.
The proper way to do that is a modern tax system that raises enough money so Kentucky can invest in creating a successful 21st century economy and society. The only way to create that modern tax system is for citizens and politicians to be honest with themselves and one another, and make some tough choices.
The problem I have with gambling as a substitute for honest taxation is that it's based on the myth of easy money.
Sure, slot machines at racetracks would prompt some Kentucky gamblers to lose their money here rather than in other states. It also might attract some out-of-state gamblers.
But a lot of that money would go into the pockets of gambling interests, soak up discretionary income now spent elsewhere in Kentucky's economy and create more social costs. If slot machines at racetracks were a panacea, the states that now have them wouldn't be struggling with many of the same problems Kentucky faces.
The only reason to even consider slot machines, in my view, is to preserve Kentucky's horse industry. It is one of Kentucky's claims to fame and a vital piece of an agricultural economy that protects irreplaceable rural land from development.
As the Herald-Leader's John Cheves reported last Sunday and Monday, the horse industry's arguments for slot machines may be overstated, but the problems are real. Kentucky's race purses and breeder incentives are no longer competitive with other states. No business can survive if it's not competitive.
While the horse industry's public face may be the wealthy owners of Central Kentucky's showplace farms, its heart and soul are the small breeders and owners, merchants, farriers, veterinarians and others who make their living in the industry. They will follow the money, and who can blame them?
For Kentucky's horse industry to be healthy, racing and breeding must be economically competitive. Other states have become more competitive with money generated by expanded gambling. That might be a quick cure for Kentucky's horse industry, but could it be a long-term poison?
The danger, as Cheves' articles pointed out, is that slot machines at racetracks can go from subsidizing horse racing to crowding it out. Kentucky's long-term economic interests aren't tied to the owners of racetracks so much as to the horse breeders, owners and workers who depend on them.
Horse racing thrived during the 20th century because it was the only way many people could gamble. That's no longer the case. There are now many quicker, cheaper and more accessible ways to gamble — and, it seems, new ones are being invented every day.
The only way for horse racing to survive is for the industry to build a fan base around the enjoyment of watching and wagering on competition among equine athletes.
Putting slot machines at racetracks would clearly be in the best short-term interests of both state government and the horse industry. But what about the long term? That's the real issue the General Assembly must face.
In the long run, will slot machines improve Kentucky's economy and quality of life or detract from it? Will they help save the horse industry or hasten its demise?