Tough Sell Ahead - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the November 24, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Kentucky's Thoroughbred industry will get another bite at the casino apple this year, but it is unlikely to get more than a nibble.

If we believe what we hear from Kentucky politicians, there is hope.

Democrat Gov. Steve Beshear, who championed this cause earlier in 2012 along with Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, has said he would like to see legislation introduced in January that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot asking voters to approve casino gaming. If approved, the vote could not happen until 2014 at the earliest.

All too sobering is the realization that by the time Kentuckians might get around to simply voting for approval on the issue, a new downtown casino in Cincinnati will have already been operating for about 18 months. And prior to simply getting a chance to vote on the issue, another two years of money, and breeding and racing stock, will have leached out of Kentucky and into the racing programs of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and New York, and soon to fresh competitors Maryland and Ohio.

It is remarkable how little will there seems to be for aiding an industry with a $4 billion economic footprint and one that generates 80,000-100,000 jobs. One wouldn’t think people would have to push so hard to protect an industry of this magnitude, but apparently we do.

The likelihood of a ballot amendment passing next year is unfortunately slim.

One of the obstacles such an amendment could face next year would be the short session. In Kentucky the legislature meets only 30 days in odd-numbered years. The crush of legislation is expected to include some major issues such as pension reform, Medicaid and managed care issues, and tax reform. Many legislators, who would already rather stay clear of the casino issue, are not likely to see a pressing reason to get something done next year. Adding to the complications is a requirement that to pass any constitutional amendment during an odd year requires a supermajority in each house—that means 23 votes in the Senate and 60 votes in the House.

The issue could be tackled in 2014 during the regular session, which would provide some time for the Thoroughbred industry to get its own house in order.

Some disagreement is brewing over whether the constitutional amendment should include a 60-mile protective buffer between racetracks and casinos. Apparently, several legislators who may otherwise oppose the casino amendment would reconsider if the buffer went away—a “clean” amendment as it has been called; simply a vote yes or no to authorize casino gaming.

Many in the horse industry believe the buffer is essential. The problem is, it is a poison pill. If the buffer is pushed as an essential part of the amendment then the amendment may never get passed.

Unity in the industry is needed now more than ever.

Some tracks in Kentucky are willing to roll the dice and get casino gaming authorized first then worry later about diverting a share of the revenue to purses and breed incentive programs.

At least one obstacle has been eliminated and that is former Senate President David Williams, a Republican from Burkesville, who has long opposed casino gambling and leaned hard on his party’s members to oppose the measure. This year Williams is no longer a part of the equation, having been appointed a circuit court judge in his Southern Kentucky district in late October by Beshear.

But there is another potential barrier on the horizon and that lies in who becomes Senate majority leader. Currently this position is held by Sen. Robert Stivers, who is expected to run and win the position of Senate president. Running for majority leader are Thayer and Sen. David Givens. The majority leader is a key position because it controls which legislation gets to the Senate floor for a vote. Givens, though Kentucky Downs is in his district, is opposed to the casino amendment and no fan of Instant Racing, the historic racing game bolstering purses at the small borderline track. If Givens becomes majority leader, the amendment could have a tough row to hoe next year or in 2014.

A democracy is supposed to run based on the will of the people. So here’s hoping all legislators will see this amendment for what it is, simply letting Kentuckians decide what they want—hopefully, before the bright economic apple that is the Thoroughbred industry becomes spoiled. 

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