FRANKFORT (KT) – Legislation to keep historic horse racing centers in business passed the Kentucky House on Thursday, but not until after nearly three hours of debate.
The bill, which changes the definition of pari-mutel wagering in Kentucky statutes to include the slot machines, passed 55-38 and heads to Gov. Andy Beshear, who has said he would sign it.
The long debate was full of emotional twists and turns with supporters saying the horse industry is part of Kentucky’s roots and carries significant economic impact with thousands of jobs on the line while opponents fought back, mostly on moral grounds, saying it would bring nothing but heartbreak and broken promises from a “greedy” industry.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, was introduced in the General Assembly, following recent action by the Kentucky Supreme Court whih determined last September that HHR, as it is known, was not pari-mutuel wagering and therefore not legal in Kentucky. In January, the justices unanimously denied a motion for rehearing, which essentially ended a battle over the legality issue, which dated back to 2010.
The denial also led to the temporary closing of the historical horse racing facility at Lexington’s Red Mile a few days later.
Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, presented the bill on the House floor. “There’s a lot at stake,” he told his colleagues. “We’ve all heard the numbers. It’s a $5 billion-a-year industry. We know it’s a signature industry in Kentucky.”
Rep. Matthew Koch, who runs a horse farm in his hometown of Paris, said this is about jobs, which will be lost if the bill fails. “There will be 1,400 jobs at the HHR facilities around the state which will be lost immediately. It’s also about the 5,500 construction jobs, like at Turfway Park, that will be shut down.”
One of those in opposition was Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies. “Senate Bill 120 is about saving slot machines. That’s what it’s about, gambling. There are a lot of families in America that have been torn apart because of gambling. Gambling has been the cause of many heartbreaks.”
Rep. David Hale, R-Wellington, who is recovering from COVID-19, had someone drive him from his Menifee County home to Frankfort on the ice-covered highways, so he could make an impassioned plea against the bill.
“In my humble opinion, I don’t think it’s about jobs, I think it is about greed,” Hale said. “It’s about greed from a greedy industry and a greedy corporation. We have an industry that is a hundreds-of-million-dollar industry, that doesn’t care who they hurt. They don’t care how the process goes about to hurt them. Their one passion is greed, to make more and more and more.”
Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director-Treasurer Dr. Todd Gray was disappointed in the bill’s passage.
“It appears with the passage of SB 120, the majority of our elected leaders, those placed in office to do good for the citizens of Kentucky, have placed profits of the gambling industry over the protection of hard-working Kentuckians,” he said. “While disappointed in the outcome of this vote, I am nevertheless grateful for Kentucky’s elected leaders in Frankfort who stood firm against overwhelming pressure from the gambling industry’s lobbyists and voted their values.”
Another group disappointed in the action was the Family Foundation, which has been at the forefront of the fight for a decade. “We won the argument, but lost the fight,” said spokesman Martin Cothran. “Logic and common sense won the legal fight in Court, but money and political power won the political fight in the General Assembly.”
Cothran added: “The horse industry won today but will lose in the future as mechanized gambling eventually pushes it out, and the state loses because it gets a pittance from these machines and supporters of this bill refused to raise the tax rate.”
Kentucky’s racetracks, however, were pleased with the outcome, according to a joint statement issued by Churchill Downs, Keeneland, The Red Mile, Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs.
“On behalf of our team members, our horsemen and all of the citizens of the Commonwealth who earn their paychecks directly or indirectly from the horse industry, we applaud the Kentucky House of Representatives for the passage today of SB 120. The future of the Commonwealth’s signature industry and those who support it is secure.”
“We express our profound gratitude to bill sponsor Senator (John) Schickel, (Senate) President (Robert) Stivers and Minority Leader (Morgan) McGarvey of the Kentucky Senate; and Speaker (David) Osborne and Minority Leader (Joni) Jenkins of the Kentucky House of Representatives, for their leadership in securing SB 120’s passage in the General Assembly.”