Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Anti-gambling in full-court press

New tracks may emerge

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT, Ky. — Opponents of expanded gambling played their hand Tuesday, vowing to use technology, political pressure and the pulpit to halt any move toward legalized casino gambling in Kentucky.

        But the General Assembly debate over allowing thoroughbred race tracks to install video slots and other gaming devices appears wide open.

        Just five lawmakers — none of them from Northern Kentucky — attended a press conference held by Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE) in the State Capitol Rotunda Tuesday, the opening day of the 2002 legislative session.

        The group had sent a letter Dec. 28 to all 138 lawmakers asking that they attend to show their opposition to gambling. CAGE opposes gambling on moral grounds and claims it preys on the people who can least afford to gamble.

        The horse racing industry is pushing lawmakers to approve the installation of electronic slot machines known as Video Lottery Terminals, or VLTs, as a way to compete against casinos.

        CAGE member the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, who is also the executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said she was not disappointed by the lack of lawmakers turning out for the press conference.

        She quickly added that the poor attendance by legislators is not indicative of the support for expanding gambling in Kentucky.

        “Expanded gambling is bad public policy,” Ms. Kemper said during the press conference, which was attended by leaders from the state's Baptist, Christian and Roman Catholic churches.

        “Kentucky needs a lot of things, and yes, we are facing a major problem with our revenue,” she said. “But we do not need slot machines.”

        “I think a number of (lawmakers) have an open mind,” Ms. Kemper said. “They are willing to listen. And a number of them have said to me privately ... that they will certainly make sure they have an opportunity to hear our information.”

        The group also passed out “Stop the Slots!” bumper stickers and said it will aggressively lobby lawmakers to oppose expanded gambling.

        Even some of the legislature's most socially conservative lawmakers say they are open to hearing a discussion of the issues.

        “I'm certainly going to listen to the arguments but I'm leaning against expanding gambling,” said Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas. “I have general concerns about gambling that it does not promote a moral climate.”

        Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, who represents Grant and Gallatin counties, said it's too early to make a decision on the issue, particularly because legislation allowing for the expansion of gambling has yet to be filed.

        “I haven't heard from the horse-racing industry to know if they are on board one way or another with VLTs,” Mr. Harris said. “It's just too early to tell.”

        The debate comes as Kentucky is facing a $700 million shortfall in its general fund budget, a fact the racing industry is seizing upon.

        In the letter to lawmakers, the horse industry mentions a poll it conducted indicating 56 percent of Kentucky residents support VLTs at racetracks if part of the money goes to health care for children and the elderly or new computers in schools.

        The poll was done Oct. 21-23. Seven hundred registered voters were surveyed. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.9 percent.

        The Kentucky Lottery Corp. has estimated that video gaming could generate $200 million or more for Kentucky's general fund.

        But CAGE touted its own poll Tuesday, showing that 64 percent of Kentucky residents oppose allowing casinos at racetracks and that 67 percent think it is wrong for state government to promote gambling.

        The poll was a survey of 600 registered voters interviewed Dec. 9 and 10. It was conducted Ayres McHenry & Associates, a Washington-based polling firm, and carried a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points, according to information provided by CAGE.


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