Big Win for Kentucky Casino Bill – Williams Fast Tracks for Thursday

by | 02.22.2012 | 4:46pm

In front of a capacity crowd that was partly forced into an overflow room due to fire marshal regulations, the Kentucky Senate State and Local Government Committee took up the issue of casino gambling and the much-ballyhooed bill introduced last week by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.  The bill, if passed, would permit Kentuckians to vote on the issue this November in a statewide referendum.

Passed by a vote of 7-to-4, SB 151 got “aye” votes from committee chairman and primary sponsor Damon Thayer and his fellow Republicans Jimmy Higdon and John Shickel, along with Democrats R.J. Palmer, who was the primary co-sponsor, Johnny Ray Turner, R.J. Palmer, Gerald Neal, and Walter Blevins. Republican senators Dan Seum, Tom Jensen and Robert Stivers voted “nay” along with Alice Forgy Kerr, whose off-the-wall antics inspired frequent moans and even a few boos from the overwhelmingly pro-horse industry observers in the hearing room.


This achievement is no small victory for those who support casino gaming in Kentucky as a way to raise revenue and put its horse industry on equal footing with surrounding states. Never in the nearly 20-year history of this issue in the Bluegrass State has a casino bill made it through a Senate committee. And perhaps even more encouraging, the vote was by a wider margin than most informed pundits expected.
 
Thayer, Turner, Palmer, Neal and Blevins were widely thought to be in support of SB 151. Many speculated that Higdon would be on board due to his recent campaign platform to let the people decide on the issue. But few had counted on Shickel's support. As a rising star in the Republican Party, he has just shown the independence of thought that voters in this purple yet conservative state respond to. And of course, a tip of the hat goes to the industry organizations clearly working behind the scenes to make sure this was passed with daylight.
 
As expected, the bill was amended to remove the provision guaranteeing that up to five casino licenses would have to be located at Kentucky racetracks. In the newest version of SB 151, instead of allowing up to five racetrack casino licenses and two freestanding casino licenses, the new language allows for all seven casino licenses to be given to any combination of racing and non-racing bidders. This would open the door for casinos in Paducah, Corbin and other border cities that could benefit from the economic stimulus.
 
However, the provision keeping freestanding casinos from being placed within 60 miles of an existing racetrack remains. It was clear concessions were going to be made on this bill but industry leaders were right when making the choice to protect this radius provision. Allowing a casino next door to a Kentucky racetrack would make this bill hard for anyone in the Thoroughbred industry to support. Just talk to the good folks at Laurel Park if you think otherwise.
 
Testimony was heard from Gov. Beshear, Commissioner of Agriculture Jamie Comer, the Family Foundation's Martin Cothran and Stan Cave, preacher Hershael York, and Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president Dave Adkisson. Both Beshear and Comer laid out their visions for why SB 151 was necessary. Beshear presented the tax revenue argument and Comer worked the agricultural impact angle. Cothran and Cave played up the stereotype that the Thoroughbred industry consisted of rich guys just trying to increase their wealth. They brought up record revenue figures from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2011 but clearly did not do their homework since those record revenues were due to gaming in other states and not their signature property in Louisville. They also bemoaned the millions of dollars spent by racing interests to influence policy. I suppose the Family Foundation just asks really nicely when they want to get something passed.
 
In one of the more bizarre moments of the hearing, preacher Hershael York, who previously gave an anti-gaming invocation at the governor's recent state of the state address, compared the right of people to choose to Judas Iscariot. “Over 2,000 years ago there was someone who wanted to let the people choose,” York cryptically said to the committee, trying to fight back tears. I suppose you could make the argument he was talking about Pontius Pilate or King Herod instead, but neither of those options make his statement any less strange.
 
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president Dave Adkisson had the least amount of time of anyone scheduled to speak but produced the biggest fireworks. Dan Seum, who had been rumored to be a possible yes vote, made his intentions very clear by hammering home the free market argument debunked earlier this week in the Paulick Report. Seum took umbrage with legislation that was too restrictive for a free economy society. Adkisson showed Seum the respect not afforded back to him, pointing out the restriction of cell phone towers as an example of similar precedent.
 
I know Dan Seum relatively well and have always considered him a friend, but he clearly hadn't eaten his Wheaties today. It was unfortunate to watch this Republican stalwart unnecessarily implode at the end of an admittedly long hearing. The Dan Seum I know is better than that.
 
Each of the other committee members on both sides of the issue acquitted themselves with professionalism and a certain seriousness necessary for moments like this. Each of them that is except Lexington's own Alice “over my dead body” Forgy Kerr who may have eclipsed Damon Thayer as the star of this show albeit for less admirable reasons.
 
Among her highlights was the suggestion that Gov. Beshear was advocating the busing of college students to casinos (record corrected by Thayer) and wondering if tobacco farms should have had casinos on their properties when they experienced their relatively recent decline in Kentucky. She mistakenly made the case for SB 151 in her closing statements by pointing out that Kentucky money was going to Indiana casinos. (Apparently she printed off the wrong sheet of talking points before the meeting) And when she asked whether handle saw an increase at other racetracks with casinos, she sounded like Mitt Romney talking about his heartfelt conservative credentials. Coming off like the Senate's version of a sideshow act, Kerr should have done herself a favor by being quiet and just voting no.
 
Sen. Thayer continued his winning streak with the horse industry by fighting for this bill and ultimately securing a win. But he also very adeptly held his conservative base at bay by repeatedly admitting that the opposing argument is not without merit. Thayer's juggling act will be interesting to watch as this event unfolds. There's little doubt Thayer has aspirations for higher office and if he continues to acquit himself with the humor, grace and conviction of today's hearing, I'd be shocked to not see him on a statewide ballot in the years to come.
 
For anyone supporting the Kentucky casino bill, today was clearly a win. But this saga is far from over and the real fight has just begun.

Next stop: the floor of the Kentucky Senate.

UPDATE: Senate President David Williams has announced he is fast tracking SB 151 for tomorrow when two expected yea votes will be absent. Click here for more.

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