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Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to allow video slot machines in the state's racetracks appears to be a bad bet to make it through this special session of the General Assembly.
Though the House narrowly approved the measure, the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee voted Monday against sending it to the floor for a vote. State Sen. Gary Tapp, a member of the committee, was one of the Republicans voting against the House bill.
“The way the bill was written, this was not about helping horsemen, but about helping race tracks,” Tapp said. “The bill allows race tracks to get 58 percent of revenue from slots, and the horsemen would get 14 percent. How is that fair?”
Tapp was in a conference committee Tuesday working with Senate and House members on a way to help the state's horse industry. He said if any measure emerges from the conference committee for a vote this session it should be a version of a Senate-passed bill that would put a surcharge on lottery sales and designate the proceeds to purses at tracks and breeding incentives.
Tapp noted that the Senate passed its measure unanimously, but the House bill creating slots barely made it through the lower chamber. He also criticized the House measure, which included $1.4 billion in school construction funds as “vote buying.”
Racetrack officials said they need proceeds from video terminals, commonly called slots, to increase the size of purses offered by the state's tracks. Surrounding states have increased their purse sizes, and horse owners are pulling out of tracks in Kentucky and heading to Illinois, West Virginia, Indiana and other states that allow casino-style gambling at tracks, they claim.
The president of Ellis Park has said he may have to close that track if money from casino gambling does not become available. Turfway, in northern Kentucky, has had layoffs, and Churchill Downs canceled seven racing days during the spring season because of a fewer number of horses available.
State Rep. Brad Montell said the ailing horse industry was one of the reasons he weighed voting for the House bill allowing slots, while he has opposed it in the past.
“No question about it, we're starting to lose our horsemen to neighboring states,” Montell said. “I think there's really an issue we need to address.”
Calling the vote against slots his “toughest in seven years,” Montell said he voted against the bill because he thinks it is bad policy to fund the state with gaming revenues and because of the constitutional questions surrounding the House measure.
Montell said a constitutional challenge to the bill, which would be inevitable, wouldl tie up any revenue from slots for at least a year or more while the issue was battled out in the courts. He said the issue should go to voters as a proposed amendment to the state's constitution.
“This has to go to the people to decide the constitutional question,” Montell said. “I believe that could get the money to the horse industry faster than the [House] bill.”
Montell said he would be “really surprised” if any gaming measure makes it through the special session.
Tapp said “anything can still happen,” but he believes it should be some version of the Senate-backed surcharge on Lottery sales.
“If it's really about helping the horse industry, then we will come to some agreement on a version of the Senate bill,” he said.
Though the Governor's initiative on slots appears thwarted, both houses have passed their versions of his economics incentives package, his budget proposal and his plan to create an authority to oversee the bridges' project in Louisville. Conference committees are currently trying to iron out the differences in the plans passed by each chamber.