A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Despite potential for budget shortfall, lawmakers say odds are long for approval of casino gambling

By Tom Latek and Mark Maynard
Kentucky Today

Even with the state facing a projected budget shortfall and an enormous public pension debt, casino gambling remains off the table.

“I haven’t heard any discussion of that issue and no one has talked to me about it,” said Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville. “I’ve always opposed gambling, for personal reasons. For me to support any kind of expanded gaming, it would have to be very, very limited and controlled circumstances. I’ve not seen any type of proposal that I could support.”

Several other lawmakers said they’ve heard no serious discussions about casino gambling as a revenue generator to bolster state finances.

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, didn’t see gambling “going anywhere.”

Republican state Rep. Jill York of Grayson, shown here speaking in a House committee meeting, said Wednesday casino gambling isn’t a hot topic among lawmakers as the next legislative session nears. (LRC Public Information Photo)

“I haven’t heard anything that rises to the level of a buzz, just a little noise at this point that hasn’t risen in volume,” he said. “There are always going to be a few that thinks casinos are the right policy for Kentucky, whether we need this money for pensions or the budget.

“The reason for justifying it shifts, but the desire to have it never goes away.”

Gambling in any form won’t get any support from him, said Rep. Dan Bentley, R-Russell.

“I haven’t heard the word gambling spoken of since we voted down the Fantasy Football,” said Bentley, referring to ill-fated legislation that was quashed earlier this year. “I’m sure that I’m not privy to everything, because there are cliques and all, but I haven’t heard anything.”

The Fantasy Football proposal would have established a legal footing for paid-entry fantasy sports and regulation of companies offering them, like the biggest Daily Fantasy Sports operators, DraftKings and FanDuel.

The bill garnered a majority vote in the House with a 37-36 margin, but did not reach the 40-vote threshold required to advance it to the Senate (bills must be approved by two-fifths of the 100 members in the House).

The bill went from introduced – making it through two committee votes – to dead in just two weeks.

Plans announced by Churchill Down in June to build a standalone facility to house 650 historical horse race machines had some thinking it may be part of a larger effort by pro-casino forces for expanded gaming in Kentucky.

The Daily Racing Form reported the historic Louisville track plans to spend $50-60 million at the 85,000-square foot parlor, which received preliminary approval from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. It would be located near Churchill’s Trackside training facility and open in about a year.

The proposal marked a change in tactics for Churchill Downs, which has historically lobbied for a full casino and not sought the machines, which use the results of previously run races to determine winners and pay-outs.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said while he heard a few murmurs about addressing expanded gaming after Churchill’s announcement, it has since quieted.

“I spoke with leadership, and they were unaware of anything that was going on. I haven’t heard those same rumors.”

“As a legislator, I’m vehemently opposed to it,” Westerfield said. “I think it’s a regressive tax. Everyone agrees the Commonwealth needs more money, but shouldn’t make it from lower or middle-class folks who don’t have the money in the first place.”

Westerfield, who on Tuesday announced he was a candidate for attorney general in 2019, said it would be a difficult road.

“I would want to know if any legislation is constitutional and would pass constitutional muster. I didn’t think the [horse] industry was on the same page anymore. I thought they were still in disarray over what they hoped to get, and couldn’t find agreement.”

Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, said she hasn’t heard anything from her region or in the annex or even the hallways about gambling.

“I will say the new majority is being as transparent as they can into looking at everything,” she said. “There are some very real issues that are going to have to be addressed. I applaud out-of-the-box thinking, but the gambling box is one I haven’t heard talked of opening.”

Tom Latek can be reached at tom.latek@kentuckytoday.com. Mark Maynard can be reached at mark.maynard@kentuckytoday.com

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