Keeling: Casino amendment died amid chaos, missteps

FRANKFORT — Any session of the Kentucky General Assembly offers ample evidence supporting "chaos theory," a mathematics concept often used to explain the unpredictability of natural phenomena such as the weather.

According to chaos theory, small differences in initial conditions lead to vast variances in ultimate outcomes. This is known as the "butterfly effect" because a frequently cited example involves a butterfly flapping its wings in one area of the Earth, setting off a chain reaction producing extreme weather conditions elsewhere.

How does this apply to the General Assembly? Simple. Anything happening anywhere raising the eyebrow of any legislator whose vote matters on any issue can bring chaos theory into play and produce catastrophic consequences. So, if you're pushing an even remotely sensitive measure hinging on a few votes, your first priority must be keeping the butterfly from flapping its wings or, perhaps more important, flapping its gums.

Someone forgot to explain chaos theory and the butterfly effect to Gov. Steve Beshear and former Gov. Brereton Jones.

First, Jones, a Thoroughbred breeder who supports the expanded gambling Kentucky racing needs to remain competitive with "racino" states, emboldened opponents by criticizing a proposed constitutional amendment allowing voters a say on the subject as lacking sufficient specificity.

Then, Beshear ticked off some supporters by reportedly pushing for the ouster of Harold Workman, the president and chief executive officer of the Kentucky State Fair Board. who apparently has the widespread support of the agriculture community and the lawmakers who represent it. A bill requiring Senate confirmation of appointees to the fair board filed in response to Beshear's actions appears headed for passage in timing historically rapid for regular sessions.

Did Jones' comments or Beshear's misstep on Workman lead to Thursday's defeat of the constitutional amendment in the Republican-controlled Senate by a 16-21 vote? Probably not.

Even if Sen. Gerald Neal —a pro-expanded gambling Louisville Democrat — had been present instead of out of state for business reasons, the most favorable vote count for the amendment I heard from its supporters fell one short of the 23 needed to pass it. With defeat of the measure guaranteed, several possible yes votes bailed Thursday to protect their political posteriors.

It's questionable whether the amendment's chances would have improved if the vote had been delayed a day, allowing Neal to be present, as the bill's sponsor, Georgetown Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, requested. But the extremely rare, if not unprecedented, decision to ignore a sponsor's wishes on when a bill is called for a floor vote leaves no doubt about the person responsible for killing the amendment. Senate President David Williams, who saw his hopes for being the state's chief executive shot down by an overwhelming margin in November, once again confirmed his status as Kentucky's chief obstructionist.

It's also questionable whether any changes of wording, another subject of criticism, would have helped the amendment's chances. Wording less protective of the Thoroughbred racing industry arguably might have cost as many votes as it gained.

And changing a "shall" to "may" in regard to legislative authorization of casino gambling would have opened the door to a repeat of voters' experience with the personal property tax on motor vehicles.

When Kentuckians approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the General Assembly to eliminate the state portion of that tax, they did so with the full expectation it would happen immediately. Decades later, they're still paying the state portion of the tax because lawmakers desperate for dollars to spend on their favored causes/services/projects have refused to exercise their "may" option to eliminate it.

But Williams' responsibility for swinging the hatchet on the gambling amendment and questions about the wording of the measure don't absolve Jones and Beshear from being totally tone deaf in their own comments and actions. You simply don't make the statements Jones made or set in motion the chain of events Beshear reportedly initiated when something as sensitive and controversial as the gambling amendment is in play. If you have any understanding of chaos theory and any appreciation at all for its ability to impact what's happening in the General Assembly, you strap down the butterfly's wings and muzzle its gums. They didn't, and that failure made their opponents' task easier.

This may well have been Kentucky Thoroughbred racing's last gasp at achieving parity with its counterparts in other states. Tracks may still soldier on with "instant racing" that lets bettors compete against each other in pari-mutuel bets on past races, assuming the state Supreme Court upholds this gambling option.

But instant racing simply doesn't have the potential for making purses and breeders' incentives competitive. And the Senate's rejection of the amendment makes it unlikely the racing industry will fight this losing battle again anytime soon.

So, the likely consequence will be that one or more of Kentucky's racetracks may cease operations in the near future, breaking the cycle of meets that provides year-round employment for this state's small and medium-sized racing and breeding operations, forcing them to go elsewhere. And the state that likes to think of itself as the Horse Capital of the World will be the poorer for it.