Politics & Government

Top Republicans pledge to block expanded gambling in KY Senate, undercutting Beshear

The two highest ranking Republicans in the Kentucky Senate said Thursday that any legislation expanding casino gambling in Kentucky will not be heard in the Senate in the next legislative session, undercutting a campaign pledge by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear to find new sources of revenue for the state’s ailing pension systems.

In a written statement, Senate President Robert Stivers and Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said casino gambling is “off the table.”

“Casino gambling is not something that will realistically pass the legislature and the revenue it would potentially bring is being drastically overstated,” the statement said. “If such a bill were to be brought forward, it would not move in the Senate. This proposal will not generate the revenue to fix concerns related to our pension systems and increase teacher pay.”

The statement directly contradicts a promise Beshear has made on the campaign trail — that he would convince lawmakers to pass legislation expanding gambling in Kentucky in order to help fund pensions and free up money for other initiatives, such as raising teacher pay.

“It’s no secret, but Beshear is going around and misleading people, making false promises for something that isn’t going to pass,” Thayer said in a phone interview.

Gov. Matt Bevin, the Republican incumbent Beshear is challenging, has repeatedly said Beshear would not have money to pay for the things he’s promised, calling them “Andy candy” in a Tuesday debate. Bevin opposes casino gambling, saying the potential revenue from it is “fools gold” and that people should consider the societal cost of having casinos in the state.

The statement from Stivers and Thayer underscores the biggest challenge Beshear would face should he be elected in November — he would have to work with a Senate and House of Representatives that Republicans control with super-majorities.

When Beshear has been confronted about that challenge on the campaign trail, he has argued the public will pressure lawmakers into expanding gambling because the resulting tax revenue would be tied to the pension system.

That scenario ignores the animosity some legislative leaders feel toward Beshear. In particular, Beshear successfully challenged the constitutionality of a Republican-backed pension overhaul bill.

In an earlier interview, Thayer said he and many Republican leaders feel Beshear has “poked them in the eye” during his tenure as attorney general, both with his stances on various pension proposals and his refusal to defend some of the more controversial bills limiting abortion-rights that lawmakers have approved.

“I think its a completely false assertion that he can get anything done pertaining to the General Assembly,” Thayer said.

Thayer was the sponsor on a casino gaming bill in 2012 and was a key advocate for bringing historic horse racing machines, which operate much like slot machines, to Kentucky racetracks. He now says he no longer supports expanded casino gambling and that there are fewer votes in the Senate for the idea now than eight years ago.

In a response to Stivers and Thayer, Beshear’s campaign doubled down.

“Andy will work across the aisle to get this done, regardless of the political rhetoric that gets thrown out during the final days of a political campaign,” said Eric Hyers, Beshear’s campaign manager.

Republicans have also undercut Beshear’s second proposal for new revenue — the legalization of medicinal marijuana. A bill that was approved by a House committee earlier this year specifically did not tax medicinal marijuana because the state doesn’t generally tax medicine.

“If Andy Beshear wins, there will be four years of unprecedented deadlock,” Thayer said.

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.
Support my work with a digital subscription