UPDATE: Since the publication of this piece, it has been reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader that State Sen. Damon Thayer and Gov. Steve Beshear had lunch today in Frankfort to lay the groundwork for an expanded gaming bill to come out of the Kentucky Senate during the 2012 session. Click here to read more.
I have a confession to make and it may not make me popular in some circles. I like Damon Thayer. I can't help it. I freely admit the Kentucky state Senator representing Scott County can be brash, opinionated and self-serving, but I challenge you to name a politician who cannot be at least partially described that way. It's part of the psychological makeup of someone who sees no problem calling complete strangers to ask them for $1,000 non-tax deductible contributions. As former chairman of Louisville's Republican Party, let's just say I can relate.
Thayer, who worked for many years at Turfway Park and the Breeders' Cup, has earned a bad reputation in Kentucky equine circles and some of the criticism is deserved. He oftentimes appears to be playing both sides, claiming one moment that he is the horse industry's senator and then the next seeming to antagonize those very constituents he claims to represent.
This sort of double speak reared its ugly head again the day after Christmas in a Greg Hall article appearing in the Courier-Journal. Within the same piece, Thayer is both quoted as saying Gov. Steve Beshear “deserves an opportunity on a second chance” but when pressed on the issue of expanded gaming, says, “This is his issue. He owns it.” One could understand why an outside observer would be frustrated trying to pair these contradictory statements.
Thayer is right when he says he's been consistent with his desire to put expanded gaming on the ballot. Instant Racing was a gift to the industry (something Thayer supported ardently) and not just because it has been a huge early success at Kentucky Downs. Seeing the legal hell that comes with statutorial changes on an issue with half the media attention of expanded gaming should make one thing clear to all involved: the shortest distance between today and slot machines at Kentucky racetracks is through the voting booth on Nov. 6, 2012.
But if he truly wants to be a Senator of consequence, he must seize the moment at hand and lead. It is well known that many Republicans want to put this issue on the ballot if for no other reason than to never have to be asked about slot machines again. From all that I know, the votes are there. And a recent poll overwhelmingly supports this sentiment with 87% of Kentuckians wanting to finally vote on this issue. That's about the same number of people who believe we walked on the moon and should be enough cover for even the most politically sensitive of officeholders.
Now the sticking point seems to be about who should act first. Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo and Gov. Beshear believe a bill should come out of the Senate since the House delivered a bill in good faith during the 2009 session. The 2009 bill never made it to the Senate floor. Thayer says it's the Governor's issue and therefore believes any bill should originate from his office. From the outside looking in, this feels like the sort of “he started it” arguments of my youth and doesn't make either side look terribly mature.
It does, however, give Thayer the ultimate opening if he's willing to take it. The most vocal political proponent of the Kentucky Breeders Incentive Fund when it was passed in 2007 can stand up and be counted once again by ignoring the political games in Frankfort.
Damon, ignore the temptation to engage in political tit for tat. Be the bigger person here and deliver a bill to the Senate floor as chairman of the State and Local Government Committee that can be voted on and sent to the House immediately. Stay consistent in your message by once again becoming a vocal proponent of the amendment process voted on by the people of Kentucky.
If you do this, it is my belief and the belief of many others that the years of damage done to you by your close association with David Williams (who is clearly not the person you want to tether your political career to after the most recent election) will quickly be forgotten. Time heals all wounds but money heals them even faster. Make this stand and it is more likely the Kentucky horse industry will carry you off on their shoulders a la Rudy when they start counting their newly found stash of slots money.
As they say in Hollywood, you are only as good as your last review. Seize the moment, Damon, and you can leave the stage of 2012 with the crowd shouting for an encore. Or do nothing and risk another tomato thrown in your face. As your friend, I advise the former.
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