Sunday, August 17, 2003

Possible gaming referendum may make careers

Three N.Ky. men could find themselves in middle of controversial issue

Pat Crowley

In late June, about 100 Kentucky lawmakers spent a few days in Northern Kentucky, holding meetings and enjoying some of the region's new attractions and entertainment spots.

In between long committee meetings, a Reds game and a night at the Hofbrauhaus were plenty of conversations about what appeared to be Ohio's imminent endorsement of legalized casino-style gambling.

The Ohio General Assembly - wrestling with a huge budget crisis - seemed poised to pass legislation that would allow thoroughbred race tracks to offer video slots and other forms of gambling.

That was something Kentucky's horse industry had been clamoring for and pushing hard to get in Frankfort.

Industry leaders argued that money generated by gaming would allow Kentucky to better compete against nearby states that allow casinos - including Indiana - while bringing badly needed revenue to the state's tax coffers.

But in the middle of the legislators' local visit, Ohio's gaming bill died. Suddenly Kentucky had a renewed opportunity to legalize gambling. Kentucky could grab the market and the dollars that Ohio was allowing to slip away.

The debate over gaming has intensified with Kentucky's governor's race. Democrat Ben Chandler supports allowing the voters to decide if tracks should have slots. He favors sending some of the revenue toward Kentucky schools.

Republican Ernie Fletcher has somewhat eluded the issue, saying he is personally opposed to gambling and that "at this time," he cannot envision supporting a statewide referendum to legalize gambling.

But some of his supporters believe that, if elected, Fletcher would not stand in the way of a constitutional amendment legalizing gambling.

The infusion of the issue in the governor's race puts three high-profile Northern Kentuckians in the thick of the debate:

• Jerry Carroll. The chairman of the Kentucky Speedway and former owner of Turfway Park horse track in Florence was one of the first to advocate gambling in Kentucky. He has contributed campaign money to Fletcher and Chandler.

Although Chandler has taken the lead on the issue, Carroll insists that if gaming is to flourish, it must be done at full-blown casinos featuring lots of entertainment. It cannot be limited to racetracks, Carroll has said.

• Bob Elliston. Few have worked harder in Frankfort over the past few years to bring gaming to racetracks than Elliston, the president of Turfway Park. But Elliston is a prominent Fletcher supporter and is co-hosting a fund-raiser for the Republican later this month in Florence.

• Bill Butler. The chief executive of developer Corporex Cos. also has pushed for casinos, but he is co-chairing Northern Kentucky fund-raising for Fletcher.

Even though Chandler is backing gaming, don't look for Butler to climb on board his campaign. As attorney general, Chandler led an investigation into a bidding scandal involving construction of the new Kenton County courthouse that Butler's company built.

Butler was cleared, but he has resented Chandler ever since.

Email Patrick Crowley at

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