Will Kentuckians get to vote on casinos?

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By Gayle Deaton

When Gov. Steve Beshear presented his plan to the General Assembly last week, he told legislators he wants to put the question to voters on the November 2008 ballot.

"I trust the people in this state to make the right decision," he said.

But getting the question on the ballot by this fall is not as simple as it sounds.

To allow casino gambling, three-fifths of both the House and the Senate in the Kentucky General Assembly would have to approve a constitutional amendment. The legislature is already half-way through this year's session.

Right now, the proposal is in a house subcommittee where two amendments to Beshear's original plan have already been introduced, both decreasing the overall number of proposed casinos from 12 to nine as well as weakening the guarantee for casinos the race tracks had received under the governor's original proposal.

Once a likely amended proposal reaches the House floor, three-fifths must approve it before it goes to the Senate.

That's where critics say the proposal is likely to encounter most of its resistance.

Republican Senate President David Williams has indicated the current proposal has little support, and it will take at least 23 votes for the bill to make it out of the Republican-controlled Senate.

If the casino gambling proposal requiring a constitutional amendment does get through the General Assembly and onto the ballot, Kentucky voters will decide.

Under the current proposal, free-standing casinos in Kentucky would require a voter referendum in the cities or counties where they would be situated, while track casinos could be either at raceways or on other land within the county where the track operates with local government approval.

Beshear claims the fiscal impact on Kentucky of approving casino gambling could be as much as $600 million.

But critics dispute his figure saying the calculations are based on a 50.6 percent tax rate that isn't likely given Indiana's rate is set on a graduated scale that ranges from 15 to 35 percent, plus a $3 admission charge on patrons.

Perhaps more important, Beshear estimates his plan could also bring in $500 million in license fees in 2009, and about $330 million in 2010, which he points out, could help offset the current budget crunch.

Instead of being fed into the general fund, Beshear said casino revenue would be earmarked for specific programs.

About 50 percent of gaming tax proceeds would go to education and 20 percent would go to health care. The rest of the funds would be divided among gambling addiction treatment programs, substance abuse treatment programs, veterans' programs, tourism, environmental protection, agriculture and economic development.

Current proposal for Nov. 2008 ballot

Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal asks, "Are you in favor of increasing state financial support for elementary and secondary education, expanding health care for senior citizens, children and others, support for local governments, and combating drug and alcohol abuse and other important programs by permitting the General Assembly to authorize up to five casinos subject to approval of the voters in the city or county where the casino is located; and up to seven casinos licenses for existing horse racing associations, all of which will be subject to the approval of a state agency created to oversee casino gaming?"