A Senate panel Wednesday voted to put casino gambling to a vote of the people in November. The controversial idea of changing the Kentucky constitution to allow casino gambling now goes to the full Senate, a place the issue has never reached in the nearly 20 years it has been debated.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved a revised version of the proposed constitutional amendment by a 7-4 margin.
The Senators voting yes were Walter Blevins, D-Morehead; Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon; Gerald Neal, D-Louisville; R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester; Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg,; John Schickel, R-Union and Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.
The Senators voting no were Tom Jensen, R0London; Alice Kerr, R-Lexington; Dan Seum, R-Louisville and Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.
The vote came after two more hours of testimony, including a plea from Governor Steve Beshear, D-Kentucky, that it is time for casinos in the state.
"We've hemmed and we've hawed as states around us have pushed forward, all the while hundreds of millions of dollars in Kentucky money is pouring across our borders into neighboring states,” Beshear told lawmakers.
Many in the audience wore shirts reminding Senators of the border states that allow casino gambling. Supporters see casino tax revenue as a lifeline for the state’s horse industry.
"When the horse industry hurts the agriculture community feels the pain,” said James Comer, R-Agriculture Commissioner.
The Beshear administration and the prime sponsor of the legislation, Senator Thayer, brought a revised bill to lawmakers Wednesday which would allow up to seven casinos in the state. Unlike the original it did not specify five casinos at horse tracks and two free standing casinos. However, it did keep the 60 mile buffer zone in for the horse tracks, preventing casino competition close to their locations.
Thayer told reporters after the vote that he would offer an alternative in a floor amendment if needed in which the buffer zone would be removed from the amendment language, instead giving that decision to lawmakers after a vote of the people.
Many see the protections built in for the horse industry as a monopoly. "We've said that we believe it's bad public policy to engrave the name of a particular industry on our constitution,” said Martin Cothran, The Family Foundation. He called the proposal “favors for fat cats.”
But, a quarter horse breeder from Richmond, Chuck Givens, said the horse industry is much more than just a bunch of rich people and pet owners. "This is the farthest from true,” said Givens. “There are thousands of Kentuckians like me who try every day to make a living in the horse business."
"It's not gaming to me; it is a gamble with Kentucky's future,” said Rev. Hershael York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort.
Here is what Senators said as they explained their votes:
Kerr: "Why in the name of our good Lord would we think that bringing in casinos would be a help to our commonwealth, to our Kentuckians?"
Jensen: “This sounds good, looks good and all that kind of stuff, but I tell you what it's not going to solve the state's problems."
Blevins: "It is time we bring home the dollars for Kentucky."
Thayer: “I trust the people. I believe people of Kentucky are already well educated on this issue."
Thayer said he doesn’t know when the casino bill will get a vote on the Senate floor. He says he is done counting votes and it’s up to the governor to secure the 23 votes needed in the Senate to move the issue on to the House. To put a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires a 60 percent majority in both chambers.