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Prospects For Expanded Gambling Unclear As Candidates Weigh In

Kentucky state Capitol

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear had a vision of bringing casino gambling into Kentucky to generate new revenue for state coffers, as he has often said. But the issue has never taken hold in the legislature.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, reignited the expanded gambling debate on Tuesday, announcing that during next year’s legislative session he would propose a constitutional amendment to allow as many as seven casinos to open in the state. Counties would have to approve new casinos in a local option vote before they could be built.

But after voters elect a new governor in November, advocates of expanded gambling will lose their biggest ally. And it’s unclear whether Beshear’s replacement will support the cause -- at least as forcefully as he has.

Last summer, Democratic candidate for governor Jack Conway said he would campaign for expanded gaming, but the issue hasn’t become a major point of contention during the gubernatorial race so far. Spokesman Daniel Kemp told WFPL Conway still supports the policy.

“Jack Conway supports giving Kentuckians the right to vote on expanded gaming in our state and views it as a potential vehicle to help raise revenue for essential state programs,” Kemp said.

Republican candidate Matt Bevin opposes expanded gambling, continuing a long tradition of Republican resistance.

The Republican-controlled Senate didn’t take up the bill the last time it was proposed in 2014. Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, reiterated his misgivings with the policy, saying that neighboring states that have allowed casino gambling have had mixed results.

Kentucky’s chapter of the Family Foundation has also registered strong opposition to the idea. They say the policy would lead to more gambling addiction in the state.

Independent candidate for governor Drew Curtis told WFPL that despite the drawbacks, he would support expanded gambling.

"There are societal downsides to casino gambling, but most of the state's population lives close enough to casinos to where we have all the downside and none of the upside," he said in an email. "Our pension system is in dire shape, so we must consider all options. As governor I would pass this bill."

Stumbo’s constitutional amendment would have to receive a two-thirds majority vote in the state House and Senate, and pass a public referendum, to take effect.

Earlier this year, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting -- which is part of Louisville Public Media -- revealed that as expanding gambling has languished as an issue in Kentucky, the three states on its northern border have made billions in tax revenues from casinos. In the past 10 years, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have raked in a total of $3.9 billion from a combined eight casinos, the Center showed.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.