09/16/2005 12:00AM

Lobby seeks casinos at Kentucky tracks


FRANKFORT, Ky. - A coalition of racing and business interests representing almost every facet of the equine industry in Kentucky will lobby the Kentucky legislature to pass a bill putting a constitutional amendment on the 2006 ballot that would legalize casino gambling at the state's racetracks, a racing advocacy group, Kentucky Equine Education Project, announced on Friday.

The amendment would give Kentucky's eight racetracks a monopoly on casino gambling in the state in exchange for providing approximately $400 million in tax revenue a year, KEEP's executive director, Jim Navolio, said at a press conference on the steps of the state capitol building.

Although Navolio said that KEEP did not have a firm estimate of the amount of money that the racing industry would retain from casino gambling, KEEP believes total revenues from the casinos would likely be $800 million to $1.2 billion a year.

The lobbying effort will bring Kentucky's racing interests together for the first time on the issue of casino gambling. Efforts to legalize casino gambling in Kentucky have failed repeatedly over the past decade, in part because of differences among groups in the racing industry and because of anti-gambling positions in many legislative districts.

Brought together by KEEP, representatives of Churchill Downs Inc., Keeneland, Turfway Park, and various equine organizations, including the Standardbred, Thoroughbred, and Quarter Horse industries, attended the conference in support of the lobbying effort.

In order to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, both houses of the state legislature must pass a bill by a three-fifths majority calling for a referendum. Voters would need to approve the amendment by a simply majority, and then enabling legislation would need to be drafted and passed to regulate gambling and the hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues that would flow to various parties.

KEEP was started a year ago to increase the racing industry's influence in government. The organization, which has funded statewide publicity campaigns on the economic impact of the equine industry, was successful earlier this year in lobbying to get a $15 million subsidy for Kentucky breeders derived from the state's sales tax on stud fees.

KEEP officials said that they believed voters would support the constitutional amendment because of the state's "dire need" of revenue. Although the state had a $195 million surplus in fiscal year 2004, Navolio said that KEEP believes the state would need $1 billion in the future to fund health-care initiatives. The revenues from casino gambling would also benefit the environment and public infrastructure, Navolio said.

Later, when asked for specifics on how revenue would be distributed from casino gambling, Navolio said that the actual details of the plan will be worked out in discussions with other interest groups in the state.

"We will distill all of the different opinions that people have, and bring them to a point where we can announce the general details of the plan," Navolio said. "We envision having a very, very broad coalition that will help us with some of the subtle differences that they may have with our position, so that Jan. 1 we have a plan, we have a bill ready to go to the legislature."

KEEP does not yet have a legislative sponsor for the plan, Navolio said.

Former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, a member of KEEP and the owner of Airdrie Stud in central Kentucky, spoke in support of the bill, saying that KEEP believes in putting casinos at only existing racetracks would not represent an expansion of gambling because racetracks already offer gambling.

"We don't want to increase locations where people can gamble," Jones said. "I don't think any Kentuckian wants this to be another Las Vegas."

A number of legislators have objected to casino efforts in the past on the grounds that the state should not grant a monopoly to racetracks but rather explore a more competitive environment with free-standing casinos. Jones said that KEEP expects its proposal to change as it goes forward.

"This is the way we think is right from the start," Jones said. "We are open-minded. If we start to dodge questions and say, 'This is our plan, and we're not going to be for anything else,' well, you don't get things done in Frankfort that way."

One sticking point in any debate over casino gambling in Kentucky has always been how much casino gambling would be allowed in Lexington, the only city in the state to have two racetracks, Keeneland and the Red Mile. Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland, said that if Keeneland were allowed to have a casino, the track likely would have one.