At least once during each session of the General Assembly, someone will ask me if I wish I were still there. My stock answer is, "Are you kidding?" But I usually follow by explaining that there are times I would like to inject myself back into the fray to deal with a particular bill or issue.
With the casino constitutional amendment apparently dead for this session, I thought I would share how I would have addressed the issue. Here's the version I would have filed:
"Notwithstanding any contrary provisions of the Constitution of Kentucky — The General Assembly shall, by general law, authorize the establishment, operation, and strict regulation of casino gaming at no more than nine horse racing tracks licensed by the horse racing regulatory authority of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
"The Commonwealth's proceeds therefrom shall be expended solely to provide vouchers for tuition to accredited institutions of higher education in Kentucky for persons graduating from high schools located in Kentucky. The General Assembly shall, by general law, establish the formula and eligibility requirements for tuition vouchers, but shall authorize no more than one year of tuition for each year of high school attended in Kentucky.
"Not less than one-half of each race track's net proceeds from the operation of a casino shall be expended for purses, racing facility improvements, and programs for the benefit of the Kentucky horse industry, as approved by the horse racing regulatory authority for the Commonwealth."
What does this amendment do that others have not? It is premised on a big idea.
The one thing missing in previous discussions about gaming is something to fire the imagination of all Kentuckians. "We get a casino closer to home" just doesn't do it. A huge percentage of the population is located within 25 miles of a border state which has a casino just on the other side.
"We get more money for the General Fund" is not exactly a grabber. People still remember Gov. Wallace Wilkinson's bait-and-switch on the "Lottery for Education." After Wilkinson's election in 1987, the General Assembly convened in 1988 and ultimately adopted a proposed lottery amendment to put on the ballot that fall. During that session, I filed legislation to have the entire state proceeds of the lottery placed in a trust fund which could be spent only for education.
Notwithstanding the governor's campaign rhetoric, his people would have nothing of it. Though the General Assembly largely remedied that by statute in 1999 with the passage of the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship Program, the damage to the voters' trust had already been done. What's more, people know all too well that what can be done by statute today can always be undone by statute tomorrow.
The promise of a college education — etched into the constitution — is different. Every Kentuckian has a child, a grandchild, a niece, a nephew or a friend that can benefit directly. Equally as important, nothing will move Kentucky ahead economically farther and faster.
This idea is not new. The Greatest Generation came home from World War II and took advantage of the GI Bill, the greatest education program to produce the greatest economic explosion this world has ever seen.
You will note that my suggested language makes the benefit a voucher to the student, which will give him or her bargaining power with institutions that will force them to compete to get the students in their doors and graduated within four years before the money runs out. And it is not limited to public colleges or universities.
It also lets the tracks take care of the horse industry, with oversight from the racing commission. There is no suggestion that part of the state's proceeds should go back to the horse industry. Giving tracks the gaming licenses should be enough.
There is, however, an important catch: At least half of the profits have to go to purses and other programs for the industry, which is to say not into the pockets of the tracks. How those funds get divvied up and expended would be subject to oversight by the racing commission.
The tracks are correct in saying we need purse money to compete with other states now supplemented by gaming. This amendment will ensure the money goes there and not somewhere else. This concept is also not new — you give someone a monopoly, you regulate their rate of return and you approve their expenditures. We do it with utilities; we can do it with gaming.
This constitutional amendment would have been a win for every Kentuckian who wants a college education, a win for Kentucky's economy and a win for Kentucky's signature horse industry.
If I were still there, that's what I would do.