Sunday, February 10, 2002

Lawyers debating gambling issue

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — With just days until legislation legalizing casino-style gambling is unveiled, a legal debate is under way over who will have final say on the issue — lawmakers or voters.

        Even as the horse industry puts the final touches on legislation that would allow the installation of video slots at thoroughbred race tracks, it is not clear how the legislature will deal with voting on the bill.

        • Track owners and operators want lawmakers to decide the issue.

        • Leading lawmakers say while the General Assembly may vote to put the issue on the statewide ballot it is the voters who should ultimately decide on legalizing video slots through a Constitutional Amendment.

        • Attorney General Ben Chandler believes lawmakers have no choice but to let the voters decide the issue.

        “It's got to be a constitutional amendment,” Mr. Chandler said last week. “The (Kentucky) Constitution specifically says that lotteries are prohibited.”

        That is why the constitution had to be amended in 1988 to allow the Kentucky Lottery, Mr. Chandler said.

        • The leaders of the Kentucky House and Senate — Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville — agree with Mr. Chandler that a constitutional amendment is necessary to expand gambling.

        “I think the members of the House will insist upon that,” Mr. Richards said.

        • A constitutional law expert says no matter how the issue is decided — by lawmakers or voters — it's ultimately headed to court.

        “I think either way it's tried, somebody will take it to court,” said Ken Katkin, a constitutional law professor at Northern Kentucky University. “And the courts will have a close question on their hands.”

        It is not clear whether support exists in the legislature for legalized casino-style gambling.

        While churches and a few conservative lawmakers oppose the issue, few lawmakers have expressed an opinion on gambling.

        House Floor Leader Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he may file a bill that while giving the tracks gambling would also allow casinos to be built. The tracks are against the casino component.

        The racing industry is expected to finally release its gambling bill either this week or next week. It will call for the legalization of Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) at race tracks.

        VLTs are electronic machines that replicate poker, blackjack, bingo, keno and other games of chance.

        The Kentucky Lottery Corp. has estimated that 5,600 VLTs would generate $200 million to $300 million a year. The money would be divided between the tracks and the state, a tempting prospect since lawmakers are looking at budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions over the next four years.

        Track owners and operators want legislators to decide the issue and would prefer not having it put on a statewide ballot.

        The theory for that strategy is simple, racing industry representatives have told lawmakers. They think it will be easier to win a majority of the General Assembly — 51 votes in the 100-member House and 20 votes among the 38 Senators — than convincing tens of thousands of voters that tracks need video slots to compete financially with riverboat casinos in neighboring states.

        “Voters have a negative preponderence to amending the constitution for anything,” said Turfway Park President Bob Elliston, one of the leading proponents of the legislation.

        “And that would be a very expensive proposition, running a statewide campaign,” he said.
       The Louisville Courier-Journal contributed.


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