A leading opponent of casino gaming in Kentucky raised a potential legal issue Wednesday should lawmakers pass legislation governing a new gambling industry before voters cast ballots on a constitutional amendment allowing casinos.
Top House Democrats, however, said the General Assembly can pass legislation contingent upon whether voters decide to amend the state’s constitution.
Much of Wednesday’s House Licensing and Occupations Committee meeting focused on the societal impact of casino gambling, but Stan Cave, an attorney for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said a course of action on gaming proposed by House Democrats — passing both enabling legislation and a “clean” constitutional amendment — could be ripe for legal challenges.
“When you serve as a member of the General Assembly, you take an oath to uphold the constitution,” said Cave, a former state representative from Lexington and chief of staff for Gov. Ernie Fletcher. “Well, to cast a vote in favor of an amendment to the Constitution is admitting the Constitution doesn’t permit the legislation which you’re purporting to pass.”
House Bill 67 would ask voters to allow the General Assembly to legalize and regulate casino gambling without caveats for the horse industry, while House Bill 68 would grant up to eight casino licenses in the state, with five of those first available to racetracks. House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville is the sponsor of both bills.
Clark released a letter later in the day saying no cases have been cited showing the legislature cannot enact bills conditioned on the approval of a constitutional amendment.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said legislation could be written so that it doesn’t take effect without passage of a constitutional amendment. He also suggested that the Constitution does not need to be amended in order to legalize casino gaming.
“The Constitution doesn’t prohibit expanded gaming, so what you would have would be just an expanded gaming bill that would go into effect either in an emergency basis or 90 days upon adjournment,” Stumbo said.
Still, having the enabling legislation in place would give voters an idea of how a casino industry would operate in Kentucky, Stumbo said. Lawmakers are also more comfortable with the political cover of putting the question to voters rather than moving forward without amending the Constitution, Stumbo said.
“I just think if you’re going to ask the people to vote on it, they ought to know where those licenses are going to be and how they’re going to be awarded,” Stumbo said.
Kent Ostrander, executive director of the Family Foundation, said during testimony before the House committee that Kentucky gamblers must lose $830 million annually at casinos for the state to realize $286 million in general fund receipts.
“The bottom line is that Kentucky’s families are targeted in this scheme,” Ostrander said. “Families in Kentucky must lose $830 million each year, and that makes the $50 million casino license fee nothing more than a hunting license for casinos to come in and hunt for the wealth of Kentucky families.”
Ostrander said the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling reported some 35,000 pathological gamblers in Kentucky, and he said an influx of seven or eight casinos would likely cause that number to double or triple.
John-Mark Hack, chairman of the group Stop Predatory Gambling, denounced the addictive nature of gambling on slot machines, which he said could process hundreds of bets in a minute.
“Some leaders have made the unfortunate statement that expanded predatory gambling would not impose new burdens on Kentucky,” Hack said. “They’ve gone on to say that more predatory gambling in Kentucky would somehow only magically keep the revenue that’s already in play at the casinos within neighboring states.
“Mister chairman, these statements are either willfully ignorant or willfully misleading, but either way, they merit some attention. We happen to believe that not a single Kentuckian is expendable to addiction.”
Clark said sufficient support exists to move forward on the issue. He said much of the opposition’s rhetoric has been rehashed from prior debates on issues such establishing the Kentucky Lottery, and Clark noted HB 68 directs funds to treat compulsive gambling.
“We don’t have fences or walls for people going outside Kentucky to gamble,” he said. “If you don’t think they’re gambling in Kentucky, go to Horseshoe (in Elizabeth, Ind.) Friday or Saturday night, and 50 percent of the license plates will probably be from Jefferson County.”