11/02/2012 3:04PM

Kentucky governor seeking casino referendum


Six days before statewide elections for the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said that he would push for legislation in the short 2013 legislative session calling for a referendum on the establishment of casinos in the state.

Beshear reiterated his support for casinos at a time when the state Democratic Party is hoping to fend off challenges in many election contests for House seats next week. The Democrats currently control the House, while the Republicans control the Senate.

The push for casino gambling in Kentucky has become a divisive, complex issue in Kentucky over the past several years. While Democrats have generally been in favor of passing legislation allowing racetracks to operate casinos, Republicans, led by former State Senate President David Williams – who was last week appointed by Beshear to an open circuit court seat – have steadfastly blocked the efforts. Still, last year’s unsuccessful effort to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot was led by a Republican with horse racing ties, Sen. Damon Thayer.

In Kentucky, legislative sessions in odd-number years are limited to 30 days. While the legislature typically limits the number of issues it will tackle during odd-number years, it is not unprecedented for the legislature to pass bills during the short session calling for constitutional amendments. Last year during the short 2011 session, the legislature passed a bill calling for a referendum protecting Kentuckians’ rights to hunt and fish (the measure is being pushed by the National Rifle Association in many states despite few, if any, legislative efforts to curtail hunting or fishing rights).

Bills calling for a constitutional amendment need a supermajority in each legislative body to pass. In Kentucky, that means 23 votes in the Senate, and 60 votes in the House. The earliest the issue could appear on a ballot would be 2014.

Last year, a constitutional-amendment bill calling for the establishment of up to seven casinos failed in the Senate by a vote of 21-16, with one Senator absent. In the vote, six Republicans, including Thayer, joined 10 Democrats in support. Four Democrats joined 17 Republicans in opposition.

Thayer said on Thursday that he has not had any discussions yet on whether he would re-introduce the bill, which was heavily supported by the racing industry. Thayer is up for re-election this year, though his seat, in a heavily conservative district, is considered safe.

Thayer said he could not predict whether a constitutional amendment could pass during the short session, citing the uncertainty surrounding the races for state seats and the departure of Williams from the Senate.

“My position hasn’t changed,” he said. “I still favor the constitutional amendment. Let the people decide.”

Thayer also pointed out the complexity of determining the amount of support and opposition for the bill, given the number of Senators who crossed the aisle during the last vote.

“This isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat issue,” he said. “Last year some Republicans voted for it and some Democrats voted against it. It’s really becoming this rural vs. urban issue.”