Gov. Steve Beshear had to know big obstacles lay ahead for expanded gambling, the defining issue of his 2007 gubernatorial campaign. He might not have been prepared for a flank attack during the invocation that preceded his budget address Tuesday night.
The Rev. Hershael W. York, pastor of Frankfort’s Buck Run Baptist Church, opened the proceedings with a prayer for divine guidance, expressing hope legislators would support salaries over slot machines and jobs over casinos. York was invited (but not prompted, he told reporters) by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who opposes expanded gambling even though he has patronized casinos in times past. More praying and preaching can be expected as religious groups gird themselves for renewed battle over Beshear’s gaming initiative.
The governor, a Baptist minister’s son who leans toward secular rhetoric nowadays, acknowledged that casinos, even if lawmakers authorize a referendum and Kentucky voters amend the constitution in November, won’t come in time to avert major hardships for citizens and public workers in the near future. He called for an 8.4 percent reduction in the budgets of most state agencies. State workers will go another two years without a general pay increase and there’s a threat of limited layoffs. The governor emphasized that his budget would at least maintain essential funding for bedrock programs such as education but even they won’t escape unscathed.
This dire situation could boost impetus for gambling if enough Kentuckians buy into the thinking most of our bordering states have already adopted. Beshear cited a recent analysis by gambling promoters claiming more gaming attractions at racetracks would produce license fees of $266 million plus $377 million annually for the general fund.
He suggested such a bonanza could serve a multitude of purposes, from enhancing education to reducing the unfunded liability of the Kentucky Retirement Systems. As it is, his budget maintains a legislative commitment made in 2008 for a gradual increase in state contributions to the pension funds. Some fear this strategy will fail because of stingy earlier funding combined with lower recent returns on investments used to fortify the reserves.
If expanded gambling goes through, next year is the earliest the new revenue could begin. A still more distant horizon looms for tax reform, the governor’s other long-term answer to Kentucky’s revenue needs. A blue-ribbon study is planned before that option advances into the political arena.
No broad-based tax increases are on the table at the moment. Beshear noted that state revenue is gradually improving as the general economy recovers but the hole is deep and after four years of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the commonwealth is rapidly running out of clever ways to manipulate the budget. As Beshear put it, “the major efficiencies have been found, and the tricks and Band-Aids are about used up.”
Williams maintained after the speech that Beshear could have alleviated the current crisis with spending cutbacks the Senate president proposed earlier. He suggested gambling and tax reform (tax increases, he predicts) are simply the governor’s preferred solutions.
It’s almost as if the gubernatorial contest never really ended. Maybe we should all start praying for answers from above.