Tracks won't budge on slots bill

Racetrack leaders said privately this week that they would not support a constitutional amendment to allow slots in the seven counties with racetracks even if many of their major problems with the bill were eliminated.

Sen. Damon Thayer said Friday that Turfway Park President Bob Elliston and Churchill Downs racetrack President Kevin Flanery were asked whether they would end opposition to his proposal if a requirement for a local-option vote was dropped and tracks were guaranteed slots licenses and given a bigger slice of the revenue they produce.

"Their answer was no," Thayer said Friday. "I'm not saying that I'm going to make those changes ... or even considering it. I just thought their answer was illuminating."

Thayer, R-Georgetown, met with Elliston and Flanery on Tuesday, the day before his legislation was scheduled to come up for a vote in the State and Local Government committee. That vote was delayed because Thayer said he hopes bipartisan support will develop.

The racetracks and horsemen have opposed Thayer's bill because they say it would take too long; they support a competing measure, likely to be filed later this month by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, to allow slots under existing lottery laws. A constitutional amendment requires approval by voters, which couldn't happen before November.

Elliston confirmed his conversation with Thayer.

"It's not legally necessary to have a constitutional amendment, and the time it would take would be too late to help," Elliston said. "The need is right now."

Tracks have also expressed concern that casinos in Indiana and Ohio would wage a costly campaign to block them in a referendum vote.

Thayer said the horse industry needs to move past that position.

"They can continue to argue the constitutionality of slots by statute, but they need to move on because it doesn't have the votes," Thayer said. "If they want to have any sort of help, letting the people decide is the only option."

He pointed to a report this week by CNHI Newspapers that at least two Democratic senators — Ray Jones of Pikeville and Mike Reynolds of Bowling Green — would not support expanded gambling, and a third — R.J. Palmer of Winchester — would abstain, casting doubt on Gov. Steve Beshear's claim to have the 20 votes needed in the Senate to approve slots-by-statute.

Thayer said the revelation should give Democrats a reason to reconsider their opposition to his amendment. With Democratic support, he said, he would be close to the 23 votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said Friday that horsemen were not told about Thayer's hypothetical question by track executives.

"That was news to me. I'm a little disappointed they didn't at least let us know that," Maline said. "It's helpful to know there's some give there, (that Thayer's not) totally intransigent to horsemen's concerns."