Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Alms for the Rich

At a time when many Kentuckians are losing their jobs, being put on furlough by their employers, and can't pay their mortgages, it is hard to envision why some people would want to pass legislation that would fatten the bank accounts of the wealthy horse racing tracks and horse farms, many of which are not even owned by Kentuckians.

It's even harder to envision how they think they can do it in clear violation of the Kentucky's Constitution.

The legislation, which could be taken up in a special legislative session recently called by Gov. Steve Beshear, proposes to put video slot machines at Kentucky's horse tracks. Video slot machines are the most predatory form of gambling, and they direct their appeal toward gamblers at the low end of the economic scale. These are people who could never even think of affording the lifestyle of those who would benefit under proposed legislation from the money these low-end gamblers will lose.

The chief impetus for the bill comes from the horse industry, which has come, gold-plated cup in hand, and tried to convince state lawmakers that good public policy demands alms for the rich.

As one former legislator likes to say, when poor people beg, they do it on the street corners. But when rich people beg, they do it in the halls of power. If the horse industry is in such financial straights, how can it afford the army of high priced lobbyists it has sent to the state capitol? And where are they getting all the money they have dumped into the advertising campaign that has now hit radio across the state?

The loudest voice calling for passage of the legislation is Churchill Downs, the state's largest horse racing track, and one which is almost exclusively owned by out-of-state investors. It argues that low purses threaten to kill horse racing in the state, which cannot compete with horse tracks in other states whose purses are subsidized by the profits from video slots.

If Churchill Downs is concerned about purses, why couldn't it have used some of the $121 million it recently lavished on remodeling the clubhouse to fund them? In fact, if things are so bad, how could Churchill Downs have afforded the project in the first place?

But even if bailing out a rich industry by expanding gambling in Kentucky served some public purpose, it would run head-on into the state's Constitution. Up until the last legislative session, expanded gambling advocates were pushing for a constitutional amendment because they believed--like everyone else--that the voters in 1988 approved only a state lottery, not other forms of gambling.

KEEP, the horse industry's largest lobbying group pledged it would only support legislation that guaranteed the money would go to education, in order to avoid a replay of anger over the Lottery proceeds not going to education, as voters were promised, until ten years later. And Gov. Steve Beshear said the following in his campaign for governor, a statement that is still on his campaign's web page:

It is time to put this question on the ballot and let the people of Kentucky decide. As Governor of this state, I will make sure that the people have an opportunity to make that choice.

But now all the rhetoric about "letting the people decide" has been discarded, the victim of political expediency. Now the message is that, without knowing it, voters actually approved slot machines in 1988.

Someone's going to get hoodwinked. It might as well be you.

There is nothing in the ballot language of the Lottery Amendment even hinting that voters were voting for anything remotely resembling video slots. In fact, not only did the Legislative Research Commission only discuss instant and online games in its explanation to voters in 1988, but when the amendment was debated on the floor of the House, bill sponsor Bill Donnermeyer assured his fellow lawmakers that the Lottery amendment did "not provide for slot machines or anything like that."

After playing fast and loose with the Lottery money in the 1990s that was supposed to go to education, are lawmakers now going to tell Kentuckians that it was all part of a bait-and-switch strategy to get them to vote for something they had no intention of voting for?

The proponents of expanded gambling are again making big promises to the people of Kentucky. They would be a lot more believable if their record on keeping past promises wasn't so bad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Has anyone looked at where the Kentucky Breeders Awards money is going? Is it going to horse breeders and owners that live out of state or is the money staying in Kentucky? If it is staying in Kentucky is it going to millionaire horse owners or to average middle or lower class Kentuckians?

I think if this is investigated you will find income from slots that is earmarked for the horse industry will in fact be going out of state and often out of country and/or to the mega money farm owners. The Kentucky public will not be getting much. They will be subsidizing the "Sport of Kings" for the millionaire and billionaire horse owners and breeders.

Flora Guter