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January 22, 2008

Why not let the people vote on gambling?

The desire to have a statewide referendum on casino gambling should be viewed, essentially, as a tourism and economic-development issue that will give our economically-troubled commonwealth an important new source of jobs, taxes and revenue, and a leg up to our signature industry, horse racing and breeding.Alas, the ministers, politicians, lawmakers and other social conservatives who oppose such a referendum insist on framing it strictly as a moral issue.With all due respect, the opponents are hypocrites.Appearing before the Louisville Forum, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper of the Kentucky Council of Churches and John-Mark Hack of Say No to Casinos — they are an entry, the 1 and 1A of the Hypocrisy Stable — trotted out their usual fear tactics. They claim to oppose letting the public vote on casino gaming because they know what’s better for the voters than the voters do.
It is the height of hypocrisy to single out casino gaming without also opposing all the other legal products and activities that lead to addiction, depravity, moral decay, crime, increased health costs and the destruction of families.I’m talking about alcohol, tobacco products, pari-mutuel wagering, lotteries and credit-card abuse. From a strictly logical and moral standpoint, how can anybody approve of those products and endeavors, tacitly or otherwise, but draw the line at casino gaming?Consider, if you will, the current debate over again raising Kentucky’s cigarette tax. Out of one side of their mouths, the proponents of a higher tax say they are trying to discourage tobacco usage by making it cost-prohibitive. Out of the other side of their mouths, they talk about the increased revenue the Commonwealth would get from more taxes.Do politicians really want Kentuckians to stop smoking? If they do, for health reasons, they should advocate to make the production and sale of tobacco products illegal in Kentucky. But that’s not going to happen because (a) they realize state government is addicted to the revenue from cigarette sales, and (b) the abolition of cigarettes in Kentucky would only drive our citizens across our borders to buy their cigarettes — the way our gamblers now cross in droves to gamble at casinos in neighboring states.To this day, no legal product is responsible for more broken homes and families, more spouse and child abuse, and more deaths and addiction than alcohol. The ancestors of the Say No to Casinos crowd had their way about alcohol in 1919, when Congress passed the Volstead Act that prohibited the production and sale of alcohol.That worked out rather well, didn’t it? All Prohibition succeeded in doing was creating organized crime and driving up homicide rates in larger cities. If anything, it created more thirst for alcohol. In 1933, Congress finally admitted defeat and repealed the Volstead Act.Moral of the story: People always find a way to indulge their vice of choice. So at least in the areas of alcohol, tobacco and gambling, government might as well legalize it, regulate it and tax the hell out of it. That’s what our neighboring states do. And it is embarrassing to think Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia are more enlightened. They apparently have more pragmatists and fewer hypocrites.Even the 1 and 1A of the Hypocrisy Stable might buy into the idea that to progress in this still-new century, Kentuckians need to widen their horizons and begin thinking of their place in the global economy. But it’s impossible to think globally when you can’t even think regionally.Cincinnati’s civic leaders were thinking regionally when they placed the city’s airport in Northern Kentucky. In today’s world, geographical barriers are virtually meaningless. Just as Northern Kentucky is part of Greater Cincinnati, so is Southern Indiana part of Greater Louisville, and Evansville, Ind., is part of Greater Henderson (or vice-versa).Looking at it that way, Kentucky already has casino gambling, a fact Hack conveniently ignored when he brought up Louisville’s West End. When he said “the West End of Louisville cannot afford another addiction,” it was hard to imagine his audience didn’t laugh out loud. Because of Caesars Indiana, casino gambling has been a fact of life in all of Louisville for almost 10 years.Estimates say Kentuckians gamble more than $1 billion a year at casinos in neighboring states. No doubt some of these Kentuckians — a minuscule percentage — become so addicted they might lose their families, homes and jobs. When that happens, they don’t seek treatment in the states where they gambled — they seek it at home. So Kentucky gets zero percent of the tax revenue from our citizens’ gambling dollars, but 100 percent of the costs of treatment and rehabilitation. You can bet the language of the proposed amendment will include a provision that a certain percentage of the casino revenue will go toward establishing treatment programs for addicts.The language of the amendment also will spell out exactly how many casino licenses will be issued beyond our race tracks, exactly how the casino revenue will be distributed (education, health-care, etc.), and exactly how much will go to racetracks to boost purses.In many of our rival states, declines in on-track attendance and wagering have been offset by infusions of revenue from casino gambling. This infusion has put Kentucky’s tracks at a competitive disadvantage. Horsemen, like any businessmen, will take their product where they have the best chance of maximizing earnings.
 Through the decades, state government has taken much more from our horse industry than it has put back into it. Owners and breeders have groused forever about being overtaxed. But they have generally been good team players and accepted the tax structure as the price of doing business.Now, though, the horse industry — through KEEP, its main lobbyist — is asking for government help. Frankly, most horsemen probably hate the idea of being in bed with casino gaming. Yet they recognize it as something that must be done for the sake of survival. Like racing in other states, Kentucky’s industry needs an infusion of revenue from casino gaming to level the playing field.Considering what the horse industry means to Kentucky from both a practical economic standpoint (all those jobs and taxes and positive land usage) and an image standpoint (the “Horse Capital of the World”), it’s unconscionable that the same legislators who love to attend and brag about the Kentucky Derby would turn their backs on the industry in its time of need.How hypocritical would that be?Considered as strictly a tourism and economic-development issue, casinos are a good deal for Kentucky. 
As anyone who has been to Las Vegas in the last 15 years knows, the trend in the hotel/casino industry has been away from hardcore gambling and toward family entertainment. The Mob got out of Vegas a long time ago. It’s now as clean and wholesome, by and large, as Disney World.If casino gaming is put on the ballot in Kentucky and passes, the commonwealth then would sell operating licenses for beaucoup bucks. The construction of the casinos would be strictly up to the casino operators — and you can bet the facilities would be first-class, with all the amenities and emphasis on customer service, in order for the new Kentucky casinos to compete with the existing ones in neighboring states.So the Commonwealth doesn’t have to invest money in building the casinos, but it gets to regulate them and collect taxes off them. Just like the racetracks. From a risk standpoint, this is diametrically opposed to, say, the proposed new Louisville arena, which will be financed by government and bond sales, apparently to the tune of more than $550 million.Elected partly because he wants to have a statewide referendum on the casino issue, Gov. Steve Beshear has estimated casinos will generate $500 million annually for the state treasury. That estimate has been scaled down to $314 million by economists from the Legislative Research Commission. Regardless, it’s still big money — and new money — that Kentucky desperately needs to dig out from under the huge shortfalls left by Gov. Ernie Fletcher and his incompetent financial “experts.”And those estimates — and that’s all they are, estimates — don’t take into consideration how casinos will impact the tourism and convention business. Let’s say that Harrah’s, the world’s largest gaming company and a half-owner of Turfway Park in Florence, lives up to its pledge to expand the racetrack into a state-of-the-art family entertainment center, complete with retail shopping, a hotel and a theater to go with the casino.Does anybody not believe that would be a huge boost to Northern Kentucky, already the fastest-growing area of the Commonwealth? Even Jim Bunning, the junior U.S. Senator from that area, can get behind that. At least, Bunning is on the record as favoring a statewide referendum on the issue.Heck, if casino gambling becomes a reality in Kentucky, maybe even the Creation Museum would apply for a license and increase its shockingly high patronage.It’s hypocritical, not to mention inconsistent, to oppose casino gambling without also opposing all the other products and practices that strain or ruin our family structures. Casino gambling will never be as much a regressive tax on the poor as the lottery. Yet you can buy lottery tickets in all 120 Kentucky counties, and you don’t hear 1 and 1A of the Hypocrisy Stable making noise about that.They pick on casinos, because they can — and because it happens to be the headline-grabbing issue du jour. This is the same bunch who opposed thoroughbred racing and liquor sales on Sunday. Remember that? They used the same old arguments about how Sunday racing and drinking would irreparably damage the Commonwealth’s moral fabric.That kind of thinking seems rather quaint today, doesn’t it?It will be the same with casino gaming, provided the legislators can muster the courage to allow constituents to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Let the people have their say. Then it’s a matter of whether Kentucky has more pragmatists and visionaries than hypocrites.Me, I’m betting against the hypocrites. Billy Reed is a longtime Kentucky journalist and a member of the state’s Journalism Hall of Fame. To contact him, a good bet is his website, www.billyreedsays.com, where this piece originally appeared.