By Beth Musgrave – firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT — The fate of expanded gambling at the state’s race tracks is in question after Republicans gained ground in the state Senate and candidates backed by the horse industry lost.
But those in the horse industry said that despite Tuesday’s setbacks, they are still pushing for video lottery terminals at the state’s tracks and would possibly consider a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide the issue.
That’s a reversal from recent years when they have pushed to expand gambling through a change in the law rather than a constitutional amendment.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said Wednesday that if the Democratic-controlled House passed a constitutional amendment, the Republican Senate might consider it. However, there are still questions about what a constitutional amendment would say and how revenues from expanded gambling would be divided among the state, gambling interests and the horse industry.
“If they are interested in advancing gaming, that appears to be the only avenue left for them,” Williams said.
But Williams stopped short of saying a constitutional amendment would pass.
“I’ve heard that there might be some folks in the Senate that may be supportive of that,” Williams said. “Personally, I’m not.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, was not available for comment on Wednesday.
Gov. Steve Beshear has pushed for the expansion of gambling since his election in 2007. Beshear had campaigned to allow voters to decide the issue via constitutional amendment.
But after an attorney general’s opinion that a constitutional amendment was not needed, Beshear backed legislation that would allow video lottery terminals at the tracks via a change in statute. That measure has passed the House but not the Senate.
Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear, said that it was too early to say whether Beshear would push for a constitutional amendment.
“However, he remains committed to finding ways to assist our ailing horse industry and its 100,000 Kentucky jobs.”
Democrats may be hesitant to push for a constitutional amendment — which the public could not vote on until 2012 — because social issues tend to bring out more conservative voters. In 2004, an amendment to allow for same-sex marriage helped Republican candidates.
The issue of allowing slots at the tracks has been debated in the state’s legislature for more than two decades. But all efforts to get a change in law approved by the Senate have failed.
On Tuesday, voters strengthened Republican control in the Senate by adding two Republican members. Moreover, two candidates backed by the horse industry — Democrat Don Blevins in Fayette County and Democrat Rick Hiles in Jefferson County — could not oust Republican incumbents.
But those in the industry say they don’t necessarily see gambling as the reason Blevins and Hiles lost.
“I think that it was the Tea Party movement that had the most effect on it,” said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.
The horse industry first backed a constitutional amendment in 2008 but later changed its position after the attorney general’s opinion that an amendment was not needed. The industry, at the time, argued that it needed help now and could not wait until an even-numbered year for the people to vote on a constitutional amendment.
Switzer said Tuesday a constitutional amendment may be something that the industry could consider.
“I think that the game plan would be to go for a constitutional amendment,” Switzer said, but said that the industry has not made any decisions yet.
Patrick Neely, of the Kentucky Equine Education Project or KEEP, would not say whether the trade group that has pushed for the expansion of gambling would change its position and support a constitutional amendment.
“We need to be able to compete,” Neely said. “We will go to Frankfort with the same message… Absent a change, this downward trend is only going to get worse.”
The horse industry says it needs expanded gambling at tracks that are losing races to neighboring states with purses beefed up by revenues from slots and other gambling.
Neely said Wednesday that although two horse industry candidates lost, the biggest change this election cycle was the number of candidates who support a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide the issue.
“Most candidates who were running for office for the first time supported the industry and supported putting expanded gambling on the ballot. This is a significant shift from four years ago,” Neely said.
But the horse industry’s tactics and efforts to oust anti-gambling senators have caused a lot of ill will in the Senate, said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who sponsored legislation earlier this year to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. That measure was never brought up for a vote because Thayer says the horse industry told Democrats not to vote on it.
“KEEP has a very poor track record,” Thayer said. “KEEP needs to ask itself whether it is going to continue to exist or is it going to continue to employ this scorched-earth policy. That’s the question of the day.”
Thayer said it’s still early to say where the issue of gambling is headed, but he said that KEEP and others in the horse industry may want to ask House Democrats to pass a constitutional amendment.
“If that bill passed the House and came over to the Senate, it would be received quite well in the state government committee,” Thayer said, who currently chairs the committee. ” I think there is a pretty good chance that it would get the 23 votes needed to pass that.”