Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 25, 2014

Let people vote

House and Senates have bills to put gambling on ballot

The Independent

ASHLAND — The House of Representatives and the Senate are taking two different approaches to placing a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling on the November ballot, but the unusual approach being taken in the House has been criticized as unconstitutional by an attorney for the anti-gambling Family Foundation.

We think the concerns of attorney Stan Cave are unfounded. In fact, we suspect it is just another effort by anti-gambling forces to prevent voters from voting on an amendment.

The Senate approach is much more straightforward: Senate Bill 33 — co-sponsored ty Sen. Dan Seum, a Republican from Louisville, and Sen. R.J. Palmer II, a Democrat who represents all of Montgomery County and part of Fayette County — simply calls for “creating a new section of the Kentucky Constitution to allow casinos at no more than seven locations and dedicate 10 percent if the revenue to promote equine interests, dedicate the Commonwealth’s revenue from gambling to job creations, education, human services, health care, veterans’ bonuses, local government and public safety.”  

No action has been taken on the Senate bill.

House Bill 67, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville, would place on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would “allow the General Assembly to permit casino gaming by general laws that also would strictly regulate casino gaming.”

However, Clark seeks to convince legislators to enact a second bill — H.B. 68 — that would regulate casino gambling in the state if voters approve the amendment.

Cave, a former state legislator,  claims approval of HB 68 would be unconstitutional  because it regulates a form of gambling prohibited by the state’s constitution.

In testimony before the House Licensing and Occupations Committee hearing, Cave said Kentucky lawmakers would violate their oath to uphold the Constitution if they passed two casino-related measures at the same time. A court challenge would likely result, he said.

Clark, the House’s second-ranking member, said enactment of HB 68, which requires approval of the constitutional amendment to take effect, said Kentuckians deserve to know the specifics before getting a chance to decide on the ballot measure. We agree that approval of a separate state law on gambling would better inform voters of just what approval of the amendment would do. Despite the concerns expressed by Cave, we can’t see how enactment of a law that requires voter approval of a constitutional amendment to take effect would violate the constitution. But then again, we are not lawyers, and if it takes a court challenge to uphold what Clark wants legislators to do, then so be it.

But if SB 33 gains the approval of both the Senate and the House, then HB 68 — along with HB 67 — will be unnecessary. However, in recent legislative sessions, the House has approved placing a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling on the ballot, only to have the issue die in the Senate without a vote. However, that was when Republican David Williams was president of the Senate. His successor, Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said while he personally opposes expanded gambling, he wouldn’t stand in the way of a vote if there’s sufficient support.

Stivers went one step further by questioning whether a change to the state Constitution is needed to allow casinos, or whether it can be done through a statutory change. That’s a view shared by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

“If somebody wants to read through the Constitution and show me where there’s a prohibition against gaming, then we’d better inform Keeneland and Churchill Downs,” he said, referring to the state’s two best-known racetracks. “Because they’ve been gaming for many, many years.”

During Gov. Steve Beshear’s first term, the House narrowly approved a bill that would have allowed casino gambling without a constitutional amendment. That bill was based on Stumbo’s contention that voters approved casino gambling when they approved the lottery amendment in the 1980s.

We disagree with that interpretation and believe expanded gambling needs the approval of voters. Maybe this will be the year voters will have the chance to either approve or reject casinos. Until they do, the gambling issue will continue to come up in the General Assembly year after year after year.