Thursday, January 24, 2002

Chamber endorses slots at tracks

As a defense against casinos

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — Northern Kentucky's largest business organization has raised the stakes in the General Assembly's debate over expanding gambling.

        The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce board of directors gave overwhelming support Wednesday to allowing electronic slot machines known as video lottery terminals (VLTs) at the state's thoroughbred horse tracks, an issue being debated by lawmakers in Frankfort.

        The vote comes as Indiana riverboat casinos, which have cut into wagering at Kentucky tracks, may be getting a boost to attract more gamblers. Indiana lawmakers are considering broadening the state's riverboat gambling to include dockside gambling.

        All 27 chamber board members who voted supported VLTs, said chamber president Gary Toebben. The Northern Kentucky Chamber has 2,000 members.

        Only one board member abstained, Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park in Florence. Turfway is among the tracks pursuing casino-style gambling.

        “We're really killing three birds with one stone” by supporting VLTs, Mr. Toebben said.

        “We're helping the horse racing industry,” he said. “We're helping generate a new source of revenue for the state. And we're helping the local economy.”

        Because the state is facing a $500 million revenue shortfall and more budget deficits over the next three years, lawmakers may be receptive to approving slots, which the Kentucky Lottery has estimated will generate $200 million or more annually for the state.

        “The budget is on the front burner down here,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, who is undecided on the issue.

        “We can't do magic tricks when we don't have money, so everybody is looking for new sources of money,” he said.

        Asked if the chamber's endorsement will help gambling advocates, Mr. Callahan said, “it sure can't hurt.”

        Mr. Toebben said that Steve Stevens, the chamber's Frankfort lobbyist, will be actively pushing for lawmakers to approve VLTs.

        “I'm pleased that an organization with the stature of the chamber is looking at the broad-based community orientation of the issue,” Mr. Elliston said. “This is something that will help the horse industry but also improve economic opportunities in our community and the state.”

        Since Indiana riverboat casinos opened in Lawrenceburg (1996) and near Louisville (1998) wagering is down at Turfway by 43 percent and has fallen at Churchill by 17 percent.

        Religious organizations led by the Kentucky Council of Churches oppose the effort. And Some lawmakers say they are hesitant to consider VLTs at the tracks until research and information is presented on whether gambling increases bankruptcies, crime and domestic violence.

        “I'd be interested to see something that addresses the social costs,” said Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas.

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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