The state Senate has voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize casinos in Kentucky, ending months of debate on an issue that’s likely finished this legislative session.
Sen. Julian Carroll joined three other Democrats in breaking rank and voting against Senate Bill 151, which was defeated 21-16.
The bill would have allowed up to seven casinos with no guarantees that they’d be placed at horseracing tracks; however, it included a provision that would limit stand-alone casinos to locations at least 60 miles from tracks.
Carroll said he probably would’ve voted for the bill if casinos had been restricted only to racetracks, which permit gambling.
His primary concern with Senate Bill 151 was the possibility of stand-alone casinos.
“I don’t want to see Kentucky’s bluegrass country converted to neon lights,” he said after the vote. “And if you’ve ever been to Vegas, you’ll understand what I mean.”
While the issue of expanded gambling is more than likely dead this session, Carroll believes the General Assembly hasn’t heard the last of it. With the thoroughbred industry suffering, drawing more people to racetracks with expanded gambling will still be debated as an option, he said.
“We have a serious problem with our thoroughbred industry in Kentucky, and we’ve got to somehow figure out a way to assist our purse structures in Kentucky,” Carroll said. “… I’m not sure that I know the formula for it, but I know we’ve got a serious problem.”
Carroll said he heard from a number of constituents, mostly those who favored the bill.
“From a political standpoint, I could have voted for it, but I voted my conscience,” he said.
Despite the long history of wagering on horses, Kentucky has never allowed casinos. And many lawmakers were reluctant to change that, knowing they may face disapproving constituents in upcoming legislative elections.
Senate Bill 151 would have allowed Kentucky to join several neighboring states that already have casinos.
“I don't care what the other states are doing,” said Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington. “Why would we jump off this cliff into darkness and sin and addiction? This is terrible public policy.”
Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, kicked off debate on the divisive issue Thursday afternoon by repeating a long-used argument that Kentucky's horseracing industry needs the revenue casinos could produce to compete with other states.
If lawmakers had approved Thayer's proposal, it would have been placed on the November ballot for voters to ratify or reject.
“I trust the people,” said Thayer, one of six Republicans to vote for the measure.
Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement that he's disappointed with the outcome but was glad the vote was allowed in the Senate.
“This is a good omen for the future of expanded gaming in our state, and I look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to address this issue,” he said.
Beshear also accused Senate President David Williams of sabotaging the vote by holding it on a day when pro-gambling Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, was out of state on business. Beshear's contention was that lawmakers who otherwise would have supported the measure voted against it because they realized it couldn't pass without Neal.
Williams said he thought the divisive issue was “over.” The bill would’ve needed 23 votes – 60 percent of the Senate – in order to pass.
The Rev. Hershael York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, said lawmakers should consider the issue settled.
“I ought to be invited to preach the funeral here at the Capitol over this bill, because it's dead,” he said. “And it ought to stay dead.”
York was scheduled to give an opening prayer for the Senate today. He said via Twitter it will be “a very special prayer of thanksgiving.”
Similar proposals to legalize casino-style gambling have been bandied about in Kentucky since around 1994 but have never won favor in the General Assembly.
“We've dealt with this far too long,” Sen. R.J. Palmer II, D-Winchester told his colleagues in pressing for the proposal. “Let the people of this state have their final say.”
Beshear has been pushing for more gambling opportunities in Kentucky in hopes that it would generate more revenue for the horse industry and for state government coffers.
To appease reluctant lawmakers, Thayer amended his proposal so that it no longer required up to five of the proposed casinos to be built at race tracks. New language allowed up to seven casinos in the state with no assurance that they would be built at horse tracks.
The Family Foundation spokesman Martin Cothran, one of the most vocal opponents of the proposal, declared Thursday's vote "a rejection of constitutional favors for fat cats."
“It was a bi-partisan repudiation of the very idea that a rich industry should be able to engrave its name on our state's most important governing document,” he said.
Senators speaking in opposition to the bill noted the addictive nature of gambling and said legalizing it here would do more harm than good.
“This would be detrimental to so many Kentucky families,” said Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville. “I do not believe that the expansion of gambling in Kentucky is the right moral choice, nor is it sound public policy.”