Friday, September 26, 2003

Gaming lobby champing at the bit

Pat Crowley

Look for Kentucky's thoroughbred racing industry to begin its push for casino gaming as soon as the governor's race is decided Nov. 4.

Advocates for expanded gaming want an early start on a public information and lobbying campaign targeted at legislators as well as voters. The owners and operators of Kentucky's racetracks, the main force behind the move toward legalized gambling, will need to win over both groups next year before gaming can happen.

Both candidates for governor - Democrat Ben Chandler and Republican Ernie Fletcher - have said voters ultimately should decide the issue through a statewide constitutional ballot, though Chandler is far more forceful in his support of gaming.

But before the voters even get a shot at the issue, lawmakers - who begin meeting in Frankfort in January - will have to pass legislation putting the question on the ballot.

Last year, the tracks lobbied the legislature to pass a law that would have legalized gaming without a vote of the public. Given the pace in Frankfort the real meat of the debate did not begin until March, when the 2003 legislative session was just about over.

This time around the issue won't linger. Weeks before the session opens, the tracks will begin a very overt campaign that will include suggestions and recommendations on how the constitutional amendment should be worded, how the taxes and revenue generated should be divided and how the money should be spent.

There will, however, be a competing interest for the right to offer gaming.

The thoroughbred industry wants permission to develop casinos outfitted with video gaming devices, a sort of gambling hybrid known as a Racino that combines a racetrack and a casino. Racinos operate in a number of states, including West Virginia and Delaware.

But some legislators believe that if gambling is legalized, it should be at full-blown, Las Vegas-style casinos, an idea being pushed by Northern Kentucky developer Jerry Carroll, who says casinos are the only way to compete with the wildly successful riverboat casinos in nearby southeastern Indiana.

Carroll envisions a casino along the Ohio River, possibly in Covington, or maybe even in the 'burbs. He is part owner of the former Oldenberg beer hall in Fort Mitchell, which is just off Interstate 75 at Buttermilk Pike.

Don't forget the churches, which have successfully organized in the past to fight the pro-gaming forces. Just this week, the Kentucky Baptist Convention and its mailing list of 780,000 Baptists circulated a letter outlining their opposition to gaming.

According to the letter, they have God on their side.

"We feel God encourages us to help each other rather than seeking to benefit from others' losses, that gambling encourages us to reduce our dependence on God, and that it discourages a proper work ethic," according to the letter signed by Dr. French Harmon, chairman of the Baptist Convention's public affairs committee, and the convention president the Rev. Paul Badgett.

Ohio is back in the fray as well. A Cleveland-area state senator has resurrected a proposal for video slots at Ohio's horse tracks with the money going to college scholarships.

Earmarking gaming money for education is also Chandler's plan. And a poll by the Kentucky tracks has shown that public support for casino gambling improves when the state's take of the money is spent on education and social services.

This entire debate will be played out in Kentucky against the backdrop of a state facing a budget deficit of about $600 million and a legislature dead set against raising taxes.

Gaming is a battle that will be fought on many fronts. That should make next year's General Assembly interesting enough for even Ohio residents to watch.


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