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Monday, February 27, 2012

Al Cross Meant To Say: Senate President David Williams Handed Governor Steve Beshear An Embarrassing Defeat On Casino Gambling Amendment. I Have Said It For Him!

Gov. Beshear stumbled on casino measure
Written by Al Cross

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Steve Beshear’s victory over David Williams lasted just a few hours short of 107 days.

The Republican president of the state Senate, who lost badly to the Democratic governor in the Nov. 8 election, outmaneuvered him last week to administer an embarrassing defeat to Beshear’s central cause, a bill to allow casinos at Kentucky racetracks.

The bill’s defeat proved that Williams remains the master of space and time in the Senate, and suggested that Beshear lacks the ability to push anything big through the legislature despite his 20-point re-election victory. And that does not bode well for him or the state during the three years and 9½ months left in his term.

A cogent observer on the second floor of the state Capitol might have heard a distinct sucking sound Thursday afternoon, as a good dose of power evaporated from the governor’s office on the first floor to the legislative chambers on the third floor — and not just to Williams, but to House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who helped kill the bill too.

Beyond the pure politics of it all, the episode also shows that legislators are willing to ignore the wishes of their constituents, who clearly wanted to vote on the question of expanded gambling and probably would have passed some form of it, according to polls taken before the legislative session.

And it also shows that a skilled legislative leader can stop a bill that could have passed with a change or two. Williams himself said before the session that the idea might have enough votes in the Senate.

Williams’ key maneuver was scheduling a vote on the bill when he knew at least one Democrat, Louisville’s Gerald Neal, would be absent, leaving it at least one vote short of the 23 needed to approve a constitutional amendment. Once some senators knew it would lose, they didn’t feel obliged to vote for it. And the racetrack interests didn’t have time to sell a compromise, such as removing their proposed regional monopolies on casinos. In the end they got only 16 votes.

Even masters of space and time need willing instrumentalities, and Williams had some. Sen. Carroll Gibson, R-Leitchfield, who had appeared with Beshear at the governor’s only news conference to tout the bill, didn’t show up for a meeting of the Rules Committee, which scheduled the bill for a vote. That and another move eliminated the tracks’ chance to stall for time.

Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, another Rules Committee member, voted against the bill though its backers had counted him as a likely vote. Turner is a Democrat from Prestonsburg, and so is Stumbo. That may be instructive.

Stumbo has favored allowing casinos by a statute, not a constitutional change, and was decidedly cool to this year’s version of an amendment. He cited what he said were House members’ “concerns about giving these constitutional guaranteed licenses to private businesses.”

That rang a bit hollow, since Stumbo has long been a proponent of expanded gambling, and supported a 2009 bill to let the racetracks have slot machines. One of the major mysteries in Frankfort last week was just how much Stumbo was doing behind the scenes, and why.

The simplest theory was zero-sum: that whatever hurts Beshear hurts Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, a potential rival of Stumbo in the Democratic primary for governor in 2015. And casinos would generate money for Beshear to do things in his second term, with Abramson holding the golden shovels at the groundbreakings.

Abramson may have figured in the clumsy, ill-timed effort to oust Harold Workman as president and chief executive officer of the Kentucky State Fair Board, a big player in Louisville, where Abramson was mayor. The Workman flap cost Beshear the vote of Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, who probably would have voted for an amendment without guaranteed regional monopolies.

That also figured in the “no” vote of Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who voted for the 2009 slots bill as a House member. The tracks’ proposed 60-mile buffer zone would have made her Ashland-area district a prime target for a non-track casino. And the fact that she was not harmed by the Senate redistricting plan didn’t hurt the opponents’ cause, either.

The opponents, largely on the religious right, ran a strong, focused campaign. They emphasized the fact that a vote for the amendment was not just to put it on the ballot for voters to decide, as some supporters contended, but an agreement to the amendment itself.

The opponents showed a passion that the other side did not. The state has been cutting its budget for five years now, and education and other programs are suffering. We need more money, but Beshear never really emphasized that argument in his re-election campaign or his casino campaign (if you can call it that) or mobilized the interests that want more revenue.

The tracks’ December poll asked registered Kentucky voters to name positive things about the casino amendment; 32 percent said it would provide revenue for the state or help the economy, 10 percent said it would help education, and 11 percent said it would keep in the state money that is gambled at casinos in bordering states. Only 3 percent volunteered that it would help horse racing.

Beshear’s failure to mobilize potential allies left the casino idea looking too much like a favor for the tracks, not a measure to protect the state’s signature industry — horse breeding, not racing — or a step toward restoring the public services that Kentuckians need for their future.

Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.

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