05/28/2009 11:00PM

Kentucky slot advocates gain extra session

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Supporters of slot machines at Kentucky racetracks will have another opportunity to push for a bill this year after Gov. Steve Beshear announced on Friday that the legislature will go into special session beginning June 15.

Beshear was required by law to call the legislature back into session because of the projection of a nearly $1 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Kentucky's law requires the governor to call a special session if the deficit forecast is higher than 5 percent of the entire budget. The fiscal-year budget is $8.3 billion.

In announcing the special session on Friday, Beshear did not specifically cite the possibility of legalizing slot machines at racetracks. The racing industry in Kentucky, however, has been aggressively conducting a public-relations campaign for the past several months in anticipation of a special session. Beshear has indicated that he supports slot machines at racetracks.

The speaker of the state house, Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, favors slot legislation, but the president of the state's senate, David Williams, a Republican, remains opposed. If legislation is introduced, the measure is expected to gain support in the house, but face a tough battle in the senate.

Earlier this year, Stumbo introduced a bill legalizing slot machines at racetracks, but the bill failed to get a hearing in the senate because of Williams's opposition.

Legislative leaders also differ on whether a constitutional amendment - and a public referendum - is necessary to legalize slot machines. In Kentucky, constitutional amendments can be brought up only in even-numbered years.

On Thursday, Kent Ostrander, the executive director of the Family Foundation, one of a number of groups in Kentucky that oppose the expansion of gambling, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that his group would file a lawsuit against the state if the legislature legalized slot machines without a constitutional amendment.

This year, three racetracks - including Churchill Downs - have asked the Kentucky Racing Commission to allow them to cut dates from their live racing schedules, citing the inability to attract full fields of horses. Officials of the tracks have said that horses are being siphoned away from Kentucky because of subsidized purses offered at racetracks with slot machines in nearby states.