Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Obstacles emerging to Ky. casino bills



By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Legislation that would allow Kentucky voters to decide the issue of legalized casino gaming was filed last week, but it's no sure thing that a casino will ever be built in Northern Kentucky.

Several obstacles have emerged since Friday, when bills that call for nine casinos - five controlled by racetracks and four stand-alone casinos across the state - were introduced in the House and Senate. They include:

• Legislative apathy. Despite three years of lobbying by Kentucky's thoroughbred horse industry, the main driver behind the legislation, lawmakers say they detect little sentiment for the bill.

• Turf battles. In Northern Kentucky and Louisville, track operators have raised concerns over how the legislation is drafted. One worry is a potential change regarding a protection clause for tracks. If that is yanked from the bill, it would be a "deal breaker," said Turfway Park president Bob Elliston.

• Casino proponents. Northern Kentucky developers, including Jerry Carroll, are making the case that Northern Kentucky needs two casinos, not just the one at Turfway Park that the bill authorizes.

• Local concerns. Even if a gaming constitutional amendment is passed by the General Assembly and approved by voters, local governments would still have the final say. And persuading elected officials in Boone County - one of Kentucky's most politically and socially conservative communities - to approve a casino would likely be difficult.

State Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, said because the issue is so volatile she would not be shocked it if dies in committee.

"There is no rousing desire for the bill," Stine said Monday. "I would be surprised if it even got a hearing."

House Speaker Jody Richards, a Democrat, and Senate President David Williams, a Republican, said as much last week, when the bills were filed in their respective chambers.

State Rep. Jon Draud, R-Edgewood, supports the bill as a way to help erase a $1 billion deficit Kentucky faces.

"I've been saying for a long time that if we had 'sin taxes' - a cigarette tax increase, and a gambling bill - we don't have a deficit," Draud said. "We don't have to cut teachers, we don't have to cut health care, we don't have to throw people out of (state-supported) nursing homes. The state would move forward.

"I look at this issue as a business and economic decision; others look at it as a moral issue," Draud said. "But I don't think my viewpoint is the majority."

The bills filed last week mandate that no independent casinos can be built within 25-miles of a "racino," which is a casino operated at, near or by a racetrack. That essentially prevents a second casino for Northern Kentucky because Turfway Park would be licensed to operate a racino under the legislation.

Carroll, the former owner of Turfway Park and a long-time advocate of casino gambling in Kentucky, said the bill shouldn't be about "subsidizing racetracks."

"We're forgetting what is bill is supposed to be about," Carroll said. "It's about how to bring money into the state of Kentucky, how to build up the state's revenue. It makes sense to have a full-blown casino somewhere else besides Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky. It would be more of a draw ... and you need a complex that has a casino as part of an overall entertainment package."

Elliston said Turfway's planned racino would be a full-blown casino featuring restaurants, lounges, entertainment and more. But he also said that if the 25-mile restriction were removed from the bills, the thoroughbred industry would withdraw its support of the legislation.

"That would be a deal breaker as we perceive it," said Elliston, who has emerged as a spokesman on the issue for the horse industry.

Without the industry's support many in Frankfort say the legislation would have virtually no chance of passage.

Problems have also surfaced in Louisville, where city officials want the casino operated by Churchill Downs but built downtown. But Churchill, which is located in a neighborhood three miles outside of downtown Louisville, has not yet signed on to that idea.

House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, the Louisville Democrat who drafted and filed the House bill, told the Louisville Courier Journal Saturday that if Churchill opts for not building a casino downtown "we will not pass the bill. It's that simple."

The legislation also includes a provision that allows local governments the final say if voters ultimately pass a constitutional amendment legalizing casino gambling.

That means the Boone County Fiscal Court, a group of four conservative Republicans, could have to authorize the Turfway Park racino.

"I've not discussed this with the county commissioners, and I would not speak for them," said Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore. "But it would be a very tough decision weighing the economic development with the social impact and the desire of the community. We'll have to evaluate it at the time."

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E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com




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