As we enter into the 2010 general session of the Kentucky House and Senate, it is important for Kentuckians to take a moment and look back at where we have come from in this fight to level the playing field with other states through expanded gaming in the Bluegrass State. While I am a bit of a latecomer to the discussion, my desire to merely add onto the gaming menu we already have at Kentucky racetracks grows with each day. As a Republican, one who rose to the position of chairman for the largest county in the state, the debate against slots at racetracks confuses me.
The Republican Party I signed up for was one that wanted less government control and more economic expansion. Talking to some of you in the last year, I suspect there will be many shaking their heads in agreement when I say that putting the irresponsible behavior of those few who would put their mortgage on the line for a slots jackpot should not hold more weight than the economic impact of killing our signature industry. Allow me to make my own decisions and stop shielding me from the consequences. That's a party I can fully get behind and that's the broken promise that finds many citizen GOPers very frustrated with the current climate.
Yet despite the party of Reagan falling off the edge in an overly zealous attempt to stonewall this economic issue of choice, it is important that we look back at the last couple of years and see how far we have come. The horse industry lost the last special election when Republican Jimmy Higdon beat Democrat Jodie Haydon, so it is easy to lose sight of our progress. But remember that election, for an open Senate seat in the 14th district, was about the lack of support for President Obama in Kentucky, not an opposition to expanded gaming.
A LOOK BACK
In 2007, our sitting Governor based his entire reelection campaign on the opposition to gaming. The Speaker of the House, a Democrat, was so unsupportive that he had never taken the issue to a committee vote much less the entire House.
While the Senate majority for the anti-slots argument is still intact today, it was much larger then and showed little chance of the needle moving on this issue.
And most troubling, a statewide poll showed that about 40% of Kentuckians supported putting VLT's at racetracks.
The industry supported a candidate in a crowded Democratic primary field who largely based his campaign on expanded gaming. Not only did he win the nomination, but he was overwhelmingly elected Governor.
Greg Stumbo challenged Jody Richards, the aforementioned former Speaker of the House, and the horse industry worked tirelessly and effectively behind the scenes to help elect the pro-slots Stumbo.
The Kentucky Equine Education Project, or KEEP, has become an integral part of the discussion, becoming a strong branding tool for the state's signature industry. KEEP has helped launch a broad-based communications and grassroots effort to educate Kentuckians about what the horse industry means to citizens of Kentucky. The focus was properly taken off the millionaire hobbyists and placed on the tens of thousands of farmers, insurance agents, feed companies and backstretch and farm workers that make this industry so important to our future.
HEADING INTO 2010
And where do we stand today? We have a Governor in Steve Beshear who is solidly committed to helping our industry by pushing for VLT legislation.
We have a Speaker of the House who drafted the legislation, helped push it through committee, brought it to the floor of the House and passed it. All firsts.
We have staged two extremely successful rallies – one in Frankfort and one at Keeneland – that had over 1,000 industry participants in attendance. While this industry is relatively new to political activism, we are certainly up for the fight!
And most importantly, we have significantly moved the needle on public opinion as a statewide survey taken before the Special Session this summer demonstrated support for racetrack VLT's at 69%. This is a dramatic and unprecedented change in mood on what has been portrayed as a divisive issue. Can you imagine gay marriage shifting nearly 30 points over three years in Kentucky?
GETTING OVER THE FINISH LINE
Moving over the finish line and securing the victory that a clear majority of Kentuckians want to see will, just like in other endeavors, be the most challenging and rewarding part of this journey.
We must continue to support the efforts of KEEP, who under the leadership of former Democratic Gov. Brereton Jones and executive director Patrick Neely (a fellow Republican of mine) have helped push the needle in the right direction. Both have been instrumental in the progress described above.
We must not let up on our leaders in Frankfort. Continue to call your legislators and let them know how you feel. Ask your friends, family and associates to do the same. (Pick up the phone, dial it and hand it to them if you have to for God's sake!)
Continue to support candidates that support the industry, both financially and through volunteer hours. And make sure to not only look to Democrats but also to pro-slot Republicans. I promise they're out there.
Take heart in Attorney General Jack Conway's opinion this last week that Instant Racing is constitutional with a few tweaks from the Governor's office. This greatly hurts the rationale from those who claim passing slots legislation would get tied up in our court system for any extended period of time. Is Instant Racing that much different than a slot machine when opponents cite the major concern over slots as the speed in which a person can lose their money? Don't ignore this development as insignificant.
Finally, despite what you feel about Damon Thayer's amendment proposal, at least understand that this coming from a Republican in David Williams' Senate means we are having an effect on the process. Can anyone imagine Williams allowing a member of his caucus to propose this type of legislation even last year? Indeed, this may be the strongest sign that the pendulum is shifting in our direction.
We are by no means out of the woods in this fight to save our industry. But there is also no doubt that it is a fight that can be won. Whether we find ourselves victorious in this year's general session or if we have to fight it out at the polls in November, we must always remember just how far we've come in such a short period of time.
This is the year we take control of the conversation.
This is the year we have all been working so hard to be a part of.
This is the year of victory for the horse industry.
We have too much at stake for it to be any other year.
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