Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Gambling tricky issue in campaign for governor

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - The issue of legalized gambling has touched off a debate between camps of the gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Ben Chandler and Republican Ernie Fletcher.

Chandler is more openly supporting gaming, saying the voters should decide the issue through a statewide constitutional amendment. If gaming is legalized through the ballot issue, state revenues, as much as $450 million a year by some estimates, could be used to pay for education, Chandler has said.

"To pay for programs both of these candidates are talking about, you are either going to have to raise taxes or raise revenue," said Kenton County Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Smith. "Ben Chandler supports gaming to raise new revenue. I guess Ernie Fletcher will have to raise taxes."

Fletcher has not called for higher taxes, though he has not offered specifics on every program he wants to pay for if elected.

Fletcher repeatedly has said he is not for gambling "at this time," but that as governor he would not oppose a ballot initiative.

Kenton County Republican Party Chairman Greg Shumate acknowledges "the gaming issue might play a little better in metro areas" like Northern Kentucky.

"But statewide I think it will hurt Chandler," Shumate said. "I don't think this plays real well in especially the rural areas of Kentucky."

Yet Shumate also said the issue could be more politically viable if it is viewed as the answer to Frankfort's budget problems. Lawmakers have faced deficits ranging from $400 million to $700 million over the last two years.

"But I don't think voters see it that way, they don't view this as the answer to all their budget problems," Shumate said.

Smith dismissed any potential backlash toward Chandler from rural areas, where many voters mesh their political support with their religious beliefs.

Covington Democrat Jerry Stricker, one of Chandler's top Northern Kentucky political organizers, said gaming will excite voters in urban and suburban areas.

"It will absolutely help in places like Northern Kentucky," Stricker said of Chandler's support for gaming. "People up here go to casinos, they see how much money is being made and they know the state is having budget problems."

---E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

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