Keeling: Buzzards, penguins flock to Frankfort

FRANKFORT — In his wildest imagination, it's unlikely poet Robert Burns conceived of penguin poop as one of the reasons the best-laid schemes of mice and men can go awry. But it happens.

Tuesday, I was planning to devote this entire space to serious commentary — semi-serious at least — on the politics of expanded gambling. Then, a penguin pooped on the floor of the state Senate — in close proximity to the desk of Senate President David Williams no less.

I'll let readers fill in their own blanks about the symbolism of this event. But I ask you: What self-respecting opinion-monger can take a pass on such a ripe topic? Not me.

At the very least, penguin poop provides a change from the norm for General Assembly sessions: bull piling up in the hallways of the Capitol and Capitol Annex, buzzard droppings piling up outside.

In the past, I suggested this city's rather large buzzard population circles the Capitol during legislative sessions in anticipation of feasting on the mountain of bills, good and bad, doomed for death. I now know such an interpretation misses the mark by light years.

This session's "take no prisoners" redistricting process opened my eyes to the fact the buzzards flock to the skies above the Capitol not to feed, but rather to look on in awe and in the hope of picking up a few tips from the legislative vultures below.

Alas, I missed the penguin's stellar performance. But you didn't have to be there to realize the Senate floor now knows what it felt like to be a House Republican or a Senate Democrat during redistricting.

Residual rancor from redistricting likely will linger throughout this session, perhaps becoming the poison pill that kills any chance of forging bipartisan support on a number of issues. A lawsuit filed by House Republicans last week challenging the constitutionality of the new political boundaries may well cause the Jan. 31 filing deadline for this year's elections to be extended. Each of these circumstances adds another hurdle Gov. Steve Beshear and his friends in the Thoroughbred industry must vault to get a proposed constitutional amendment on expanded gambling on the ballot this year.

Bipartisan support is essential because legislative approval of an amendment requires an affirmative vote by at least 60 percent of each chamber's members. And the First Law of Posterior Protection in Election Years says no tough vote may be cast before the filing deadline, tough vote being defined as one that might inspire a challenger to pay a visit to the secretary of state's office to pick up candidacy papers.

Even without these extra complications, a gambling amendment will be a tough sell this session. Williams opposes it, and House Democrats fear any controversial ballot initiative could cause a repeat of 2004. The marriage amendment on the ballot gets blamed — or credited, depending on your political persuasion — for the party's losses that fall.

While the marriage amendment no doubt had an impact in 2004, Democrats' fear of a repeat this year seems unjustified for a couple of reasons.

First, with President Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, it's highly unlikely a gambling amendment will add to the number of conservative Kentucky voters motivated to go to the polls. Second, a recent poll conducted for the state's racetracks by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group suggests a gambling amendment could have a positive effect for Democrats.

The poll's findings on the desire of Kentuckians to have the final say on the gambling issue (87 percent strongly favor or somewhat favor putting the issue on the ballot) and their support for expanded gambling (64 percent definitely or probably would vote for it) were in line with the results of earlier polls. But the more intriguing poll results involved legislative races.

Questioned about a generic legislative race, 45 percent of poll respondents said they would vote or were leaning toward voting for a Democrat while 41 percent said they would vote or were leaning toward voting for a Republican. Given the margin of error in polling, that's a statistical dead heat.

But when the respondents were asked about a race between a pro-gambling Democrat and an anti-gambling Republican, 57 percent of respondents said they would vote or were leaning toward voting for the Democrat, compared to 33 percent who would vote or were leaning toward voting for the Republican. Even in districts currently represented by a Republican senator, the Democrat in this scenario prevailed 53 percent to 36 percent.

So, far from being a political "third rail" for legislative Democrats, expanded gambling could be their lifeline.

Beshear is expected to propose a considerably shorter and less detailed amendment than the behemoth measure he offered four years ago. Chatter also suggests the number of proposed casinos will be closer to a half-dozen than the dozen included in the 2008 bill and will include independent casinos, as well as those operated by racetracks.

Latest word has the amendment being filed the middle of this week. But I learned last week about the best-laid schemes of mice and men, so I no longer count on anything going as planned. After all, there may be another penguin on the loose.