A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Some Kentucky lawmakers continue to push for expanded gaming, legalized casinos for pensions

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

One of Kentucky’s top lawmakers questioned last week whether a constitutional amendment is necessary to legalize casinos in Kentucky.

“Somebody explain to me what the constitutional prohibition is against land-based casino gaming?” Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters at the Capitol. “There is none.”

The Manchester Republican said lawmakers have the authority to legalize casinos without putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to accept or reject.

Robert Stivers

“We can do that,” Stivers said. “If there was a prohibition against gambling, then we could not have pari-mutuel wagering. This is just a smokescreen to try and hide behind. If people have the votes, the wherewithal, the savvy, the desire, then they should just file a bill.”

That same argument has been made by others in the past, including former Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, but has been dismissed each time.

“If the Senate president is right, then the state Constitution has magically morphed into something that it has never been, and now has a provision it has never had,” said John-Mark Hack, chairman of Stop Predatory Gambling – Kentucky. “But it hasn’t, and it doesn’t.”

A bi-partisan group of pro-gambling lawmakers, along with business leaders, called Thursday for passage of legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to allow casinos to open in Kentucky to generate money for government employee pension plans.

The measure, sponsored by Louisville Republican Jerry Miller, has been assigned to the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. Miller’s measure has 11 co-sponsors, plus the support of two business organizations, Greater Louisville Inc. and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“It makes sense for Kentucky,” said Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, chief executive officer of Greater Louisville Inc. “It makes sense for business, and we need to move forward on this issue. We need new revenue, and this is the lowest-hanging fruit on the vine.”

Hack said the measure doesn’t have enough support from lawmakers to be viable.

“It won’t pass,” he said. “I believe there are enough women and men of courage and conviction in the Legislature who recognize that slot machines are just another addictive predatory tax on the poorest people in the commonwealth, and one that has an abysmal record of failed revenue promises in every state where it’s been tried.”

Some casino opponents in the House are not so sure.

“I’m worried about it,” said Republican state Rep. Tommy Turner of Somerset, who opposes expanded gambling. “It’s going to be a fight, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D- Louisville, said the proposed language for the ballot referendum would ask: “Are you for expanded gaming?”

Under the proposal, McGarvey said, all proceeds from gambling will go to government pensions.

“This gives the people of Kentucky the choice of whether they want to collect the carloads of cash that are going across our bridges on a daily basis, and paying for roads, bridges and schools in Indiana and Ohio,” McGarvey said.

Miller said the issue is about generating needed money, and morality doesn’t play into it, because, he said, “that issue doesn’t hold water for me.”

Kentucky’s faith community ardently oppose gambling based on morality concerns. The 750,000-member Kentucky Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious group, passed a resolution last fall stating its continued opposition to casinos based on a number of biblical principles.

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