02/26/2008 1:00AM

Kentucky casino bill stalls in committee


LEXINGTON, Ky. - A committee in the Kentucky House of Representatives on Tuesday morning shot down legislation that would ask voters to approve casinos in the state through a constitutional amendment, but horse racing officials described the failure as merely a setback in their campaign to win approval of a bill this year.

The Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee rejected the bill by a vote of 5 to 3, with three members abstaining. If passed by both the house and senate, the bill would have put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot asking voters to allow the legislature to award as many as nine casino licenses, with as many as five of the gambling facilities awarded to state racetracks.

Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland in Lexington, said the rejection indicated that committee members needed to compromise on details of the legislation, such as how the amendment would be crafted. The committee voted down the bill after Democrats sparred over the wording of the amendment.

"It was not a vote of people for gaming and people against gaming," Nicholson said. "It was a vote about how to do casino gaming. If people put aside their personality differences, I think a compromise can be reached and passed out of the committee rather quickly."

The committee vote was the first step for the measure, which has been pushed by the racing industry, gambling companies, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who was elected last year. Beshear issued a statement after the vote calling on the Democratic house leadership to "to get their act together quickly" in order to forge agreement on a new bill.

Legislation authorizing a constitutional amendment needs approval from 60 percent of both the house and senate. The house is controlled by Democrats, and approval of a bill had previously been considered a foregone conclusion. However, Democrats have openly feuded over how many casinos should be allowed in the state and how revenues should be split from the operations.

The senate is controlled by Republicans, and the bill is given little chance to pass there without a major compromise.

David Switzer, the executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, said the committee's action on Tuesday was a setback for the bill, but he believed a compromise could be reached.

"There's 28 days left in the session, and there's still a possibility that this can be resurrected," Switzer said.

Both the KTA and Keeneland - along with many other racetracks and equine organizations in Kentucky - are members of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, a racing industry lobbying organization that has spent millions of dollars over the past three years pushing casinos at racetracks.