11/07/2007 12:00AM

New Ky. governor supports referendum

EmailLEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky voters on Tuesday elected a new governor who supports a referendum on casino gambling in the state, virtually ensuring that the expansion of gambling will be a significant topic during the legislative session in 2008.

Democrat Steve Beshear, a former lieutenant governor in the 1980s, was elected by a preliminary margin of 59 percent to 41 percent, defeating incumbent Ernie Fletcher, a Republican. The issue of expanded gambling was a major campaign theme for both candidates, with Beshear supporting a referendum on the issue and Fletcher opposed.

Late on Tuesday night, Beshear said that Kentucky voters had given him a "mandate" to push the casino-gambling issue.

"People overwhelmingly want to vote on that issue, whether they're for it or against it," Beshear said. "I think that will be a loud-and-clear message to the legislature."

In general, Republicans oppose expanded gambling, while Democrats support a referendum. The Kentucky Senate is controlled by Republicans, by a 21 to 16 margin. (Another member is an independent who is participates in the Republican caucus.) The House is controlled by Democrats by a 63 to 37 margin.

Legislation to put a referendum on the ballot would require a three-fifths majority vote in each house. While polls have shown that Kentucky voters support putting the issue on the ballot, the polls are much closer when voters are asked whether they would support passage.

Beshear has said that he supports allowing casino gambling at all of the state's racetracks and a number of other locations along the state's borders. Racetracks in Kentucky have supported that proposal, along with a lobbying organization formed several years ago called Kentucky Equine Education Project.

Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican who represents four counties in northern Kentucky, said on Wednesday that the prospects for the bill's passage in the Senate is dependent on the ability of the House to present legislation that Republicans can support. Because the referendum would deal with revenue to the state, the bill has to originate in the House under Kentucky's legislative rules.

"The pressure is on the Speaker of the House," said Thayer, who is also a consultant to the Breeders' Cup. Rep. Jody Richards, a Democrat who represents Warren County in southwestern Kentucky, is the speaker, and he has been lukewarm toward casino gambling in the past.

Also, because the issue deals with revenue, the measure could only be put on the ballot in even-numbered years. So if the referendum does not make in on to the 2008 ballot, the earliest the issue could be revisited is 2010.

The election of a new governor may also have implications on the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, the state agency that regulates horseracing. In the past, new governors have made sweeping changes to the composition of the body as part of their political perks.

When Fletcher took office four years ago, he dismantled the regulatory body at the time, the Kentucky Racing Commission, and formed the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, which over the last four years has revamped Kentucky's medication rules and penalty guidelines.