A SAD DAY FOR KENTUCKY
Monday was a sad day in Kentucky for the Thoroughbred horse industry. It wasn’t a great day for democracy, either.
A Senate committee stacked with Republican followers of Senate President David “Blackjack” Williams voted 10-5 not to allow the full Senate to consider VLT legislation designed to close Kentucky’s budget deficit, improve education, and allow the horse industry to compete with other states in the region that have slot machines. The House passed the bill last week under the direction of Speaker Greg Stumbo, but the Senate committee vote went along party lines, with nine of 10 Republicans voting to kill the bill. Four of five Democrats supported it, with one abstaning. (Click here for a live blog including the votes by each Senator.)
Williams, who likes to play blackjack at Indiana and Mississippi riverboats but for some reason opposes Kentuckians gambling in their own state, brought a smokescreen strategy to the special session called by ineffectual Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. That strategy included a tax-and-spend proposal passed by the Republican-controlled Senate but which never had a chance of getting approved by the Democratic-controlled House. The smokescreen strategy allowed Williams’ Republican yes men/women to say they tried to help the horse industry by voting for the Williams proposal. It would have raised taxes on the lottery, charitable gambling and out of state bets on Kentucky races and provide money for purses and breeders’ incentives. (The out-of-state betting tax increase was a preposterous idea, since out of state tracks would have simply dropped the Kentucky signal on tracks like Turfway and Ellis Park and done more damage than good.)
Some of the Republicans who voted no on the issue probably were representing the strong moral beliefs of their constituents. But others who voted no, specifically the Lexington/Fayette County Senator, Alice Forgy Kerr, were sending a clear message to people in the horse industry that they do not matter.
Kerr is said to be very chummy with Mira Ball, who with homebuilding husband Don Ball is one of the largest contributors to Republican campaign coffers. The widespread belief of many in the horse industry is that the Balls and their Ball Homes want to see the horse industry fail, and the price of Central Kentucky acreage drop so they can build more tract housing. Don Ball and David Williams are closely allied in their opposition to gambling…at least by other people.
The Kentucky Equine Education Project or affiliated political fund-raising groups must now turn their attention to people like Kerr and other elected officials in Kentucky who can be defeated in future elections by well-funded opponents who truly want to help the horse industry.
If Williams was the bully of this aborted effort by the horse industry to level the playing field with other states, Gov. Steve Beshear was the 98-pound weakling. He blew his opportunity in January 2008 to push the same legislation after winning election in a landslide over Republican Ernie Fletcher. And when he called the special session and put the VLT legislation on the agenda, Beshear failed to do what effective politicians do instinctively: call their friends and make sure you’ve got their support, and call your opponents and tell them in no uncertain terms why they need to be with you.
Another politician missing in action on this bill was Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican who is a consultant in the Thoroughbred industry and is a former executive at Turfway Park and the Breeders’ Cup. Thayer, who like any member of the state GOP who wants committee appointments has to fall in line with Williams, was silent on the slots issue. He isn’t a member of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, but he could have influenced a more positive outcome and didn’t. Thayer never came out with a position on the bill, to my knowledge.
What happens next? There is only a glimmer of hope that some parliamentary procedures can bring the bill to a vote in the full Senate during this special session. Beyond that, we are looking at the January 2010 legislative session.
The problem is that, by then, Ellis Park will have had a disastrous summer meeting, and Turfway Park will be in a much less competitive position than they are now. The prospects of Kentucky losing its year-round circuit are real. The loss of breeding stock to other states or Canadian provinces is real. The summer and fall yearling sales will be down anywhere from 25%-40%, and the breeding stock will match that or worse.
The downward spiral of Kentucky’s horse business, as Keeneland’s Nick Nicholson pointed out in the Senate hearing, has come faster and harder than anyone could have predicted. And I hate to say this, but it’s not going to get any better without real legislative action.
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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