From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh
An eight-day, special session of the Kentucky General Assembly dominated by the issue of video slots at horse tracks is history.
The special session began at noon on June 15th. But before the House and Senate gavels fell, Attorney General Jack Conway issued an opinion on the question of whether or not the Kentucky constitution needed to be amended to allow video slots at horse tracks. He said it did not.
“The General Assembly may in its own discretion enact the governor’s bill allowing VLT’s at race tracks,” said Conway.
That night, in a brief address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Gov. Beshear outlined his agenda. First, he wanted lawmakers to fill a $1 billion hole in the state budget. He also wanted them to approve a financing mechanism for major bridge projects and an economic development package. And warning that the state’s signature horse industry is in crisis, he wanted approval of video slots at horse tracks to boost race day purses.
“There should be no argument that the issues addressed in these proposals are critical and that the time to act is now,” said Beshear.
Lawmakers began holding hearings on the four topics, but it quickly became apparent slots would dominate. On the session’s second day, hundreds of opponents of expanded gambling, including Buck Run Baptist Church Pastor Hershael York of Frankfort, rallied in the Capitol rotunda.
“It is and always has been about gambling,” said York. “It’s about greed, pure and simple.”
The next day, hundreds of slots supporters rallied on the front steps of the Capitol. Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel was there.
“We need it sir. We need it bad,” said Borel.
So was former Gov. Brereton Jones, who owns a horse farm in Midway.
“We know that we have to fight to save our industry, and that is exactly what we’re doing,” said Jones. “Let’s go!”
On day five of the session, the slots bill reached the House floor. The debate raged for nearly four hours, with opponents, like Lexington Rep. Stan Lee, lashing out at Democratic House leaders.
“These are the same people, ladies and gentlemen, that in 1988 told us that if we allowed the lottery in, it wouldn’t open up the state to slot machines or casino-type gambling,” said Lee.
“Roll call machine shows 52 members voting Aye, 45 voting No,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, who presided over the slots vote. “House Bill 2 is passed!”
It was the first time in modern Kentucky history legislation to expand gambling beyond the lottery had ever gotten that far in the General Assembly. But at the other end of the Capitol, Senate President David Williams quickly signaled the bill was dead on arrival. “As far as the slots bill is concerned, it’s done,” said Williams. “Stick a fork in it.” The bill was sent to the Republican-dominated Appropriations and Revenue committee, where Democratic Sen. David Boswell of Owensboro urged its passage.
“My position on this issue has not been a secret,” said Boswell. “I’ve introduced a constitutional amendment piece for the last six years or so.”
And in a packed committee room with horse industry representatives and slots opponents looking on, the bill died on a 10-5 vote. The next day, Gov. Beshear was weighing his options. Would he now support a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling?
“We’ll look at all those options,” said Beshear. “That’s obviously one of them. Whether that is a viable option or not, I don’t know yet.”
After defeat of the slots bill, the session moved quickly toward adjournment. House and Senate conferees hammered out compromises on the budget, bridges and economic development bills and the final gavels fell on day eight. Gov. Beshear applauded lawmakers for their “significant accomplishments” and said he had no regrets about putting the slots issue on the agenda.