06/23/2009 12:00AM

Kentucky slots legislation hard pressed


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Legislation passed in Kentucky's House of Representatives on Friday allowing slot machines at the state's racetracks appeared to be on its way to the dustbin late on Monday after the Kentucky Senate's president reiterated that the bill would die in the Senate's Appropriations and Revenue Committee that night.

Supporters of slots in the state had waged an aggressive public relations campaign for the past three months in order to push the bill through the legislature during a brief special session called to address an estimated $1 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1. The supporters, however, have not been able to convince the measure's opponents, who are being represented largely by Republicans, to pass a quick bill without a debate that also included discussion over whether to put the question to a vote in a public referendum.

The legislation that passed in the House called for awarding seven slot-machine licenses to the eight tracks in Kentucky, with Keeneland and the Red Mile in Lexington sharing a license, and another license possibly awarded to a yet-to-be-built track. It called for the racing industry to retain 73 percent of the revenue from the slot machines, which would be by far the largest percentage of any state that has legalized slot machines at racetracks.

The bill was pushed by the state's Democratic leadership, including Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Greg Stumbo, the speaker of the Democrat-led House. But Republicans lined up against the legislation under fears of alienating conservative constituents in many Kentucky districts. In addition, several anti-slots groups threatened to challenge any bill in court under the contention that the Kentucky constitution does not allow for slot machines without approval through a public referendum.

Though the bill looked headed for certain defeat on Monday night in the appropriations committee - which has 11 Republican members, six Democrat members, and one independent - supporters of the measure could at least be comforted by the fact that a slots bill passed a floor vote in the Kentucky legislature for the first time, after years of efforts. The legislation is expected to be resurrected during the general session next year, when constitutional amendments can be placed on the ballot. Under Kentucky's constitution, amendments can be considered only during even-numbered years.

Supporters of slot machines have said that neighboring states such as Indiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania are luring breeding stock out of the state because of subsidies for purses and awards programs provided by slot machines at racetracks in the state.

On Friday, Ohio's governor, Ted Strickland, a Democrat, said at a press conference that he had dropped his opposition to installing slot machines at the state's seven Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks, contending that the machines could provide almost $1 billion in annual revenue to help close a $3.2 billion budget deficit over the next two years. Ohio's legislature is also in special session, but the proposal to allow 14,000 slot machines is given extremely long odds, because voters in the state have shot down four expanded-gambling proposals, including one in November that would have allowed a single casino in the state.

Still, supporters of slot machines in Kentucky seized on Strickland's comments over the weekend, contending that the state is facing yet another threat to its equine industry, which leads the country in the number of foals produced and number of mares covered.