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Thayer ‘disappointed’ expanded gaming bill fails

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By Bryan Marshall

The issue of expanded gaming in Kentucky appears to be dead, at least for now, after Senate Bill 151 was defeated 21-16 on Feb. 24 after a little over two hours of debate.

The measure fell a full seven votes short of the required 23 to send a constitutional amendment to voters in November.

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who sponsored the bill with Gov. Steve Beshear, said he wanted the voters to decide the issue.

“I met with some very nice people from the Crittenden Baptist Association who are opposed to gambling and I really appreciate their opinion,” he said. “There are good arguments to be made in the pro and con side of expanded gambling. I think those who are against it make some very legitimate points. But, I wanted that debate to take place in a statewide campaign so the people could gather the information and make the decision for themselves.”

Thayer spoke with the Grant County News about his reaction to the failed bill and the future of expanded gaming in Kentucky.

How disappointed were you that the expanded gaming bill failed in the Senate?
Thayer: I’m disappointed because there were a number of people who campaigned on letting the people decide, who then voted no. The vote would have been much closer. We also had a key ‘yes’ vote member who was out of town on business. But, the main thing is that I’m just disappointed that this issue will continue to linger and the voters of Kentucky will not be given an opportunity to decide for themselves on the issue of casino gambling. I trust the people and I believe it is long past time to let the people decide this issue.

Some of your party’s leadership was against this bill, however, you still decided to sponsor it with the governor.  Why?
Thayer: I know my district and most people in my district, whether they are for or against gambling, want to vote on this issue. I felt strongly that I should sponsor the bill because of my position of chairman of the state and local government committee, my knowledge of the horse industry and the fact that I’ve run three election campaigns where I told the voters that they should get to decide this issue. The governor is in the other party as me,but the facts are he has carried my district twice by wide margins, including Grant County. And, he has always been for letting the people decide. I’m a conservative Republican and at times I can be very partisan. But, I also think that there ought to be a place in American politics when two people agree, regardless of their party affiliation, and they ought to work together. I decided to do that. It was politically risky. The governor and I had barely talked for two and a half years. But, there comes a time where you just have to put the past in the past.

How much a role do you feel politics played in the final outcome?
Thayer: I think politics played a big role. Sen. (David) Williams was very strongly opposed to the bill. I congratulate him on playing a serious role in orchestrating its defeat.

What impact do you feel the failed bill will have on the horse industry and the state economy?
Thayer: I’m very concerned about Kentucky’s horse industry because of what is happening in New York where they’ve opened a new casino at a race track just outside of New York City. They are going to be subsidizing their horse racing industry. The financial windfalls available to Kentucky horses in New York is going to continue to put us at a very competitive disadvantage. I’m very concerned about our signature industry.  The whole revenue issue was never a part of the debate for me. I sponsored the bill to let the people decide and to make sure we use some of the monies to support the horse industry. The governor and others made the case about the need for state revenue, but I never made that case because I don’t think it’s a good idea to build a state budget on gambling revenues. I’m not a huge proponent of casinos. I don’t go to casinos. But, I felt strongly the people of Kentucky should have been able to make the final decision.

There has been some who have criticism to your sponsorship of the bill because of your ties to the horse industry. How do you respond to those critics?

Thayer: I have disclosed more about my personal and professional life than any member of the Kentucky General Assembly. I’ve gone above and beyond the law that is required for legislative disclosure and disclosed who my clients are. Less than half my company’s revenue comes from the horse industry. I do advertising for three horse farms, two in Kentucky and one in Louisiana. The Legislative Ethics Committee has ruled that I am completely exonerated and allowed under our citizen legislature to sponsor legislation like this.

Do you feel that expanded gaming in Kentucky is now dead with this failed bill?
Thayer: I would say its prospects this year are looking pretty poor. But, I cannot predict what may or may not happen in the future.

What do you believe is the next step for those who support expanded gaming?
Thayer: I really don’t have a good answer for that. I think the proponents are going to have to regroup and decide if they want to go forward and what their strategy would be if they do go forward. It’s pretty unlikely (I will sponsor another expanded gaming bill.) This has been pretty tough.