Another spin of the wheel

Justin Story

The story in Sunday’s edition of the Daily News about the campaign to expand casino gambling in Kentucky provided the perspectives of some local legislators about how they felt the issue, much discussed during the gubernatorial campaign, would actually play out in the General Assembly.

This story will deserve following up and reexamining over the next several months, but for now one particular thread within the issue jumps out at me that is worth exploring – to what extent will the battle over casino legislation parallel efforts made nearly 20 years ago to implement the education lottery here?

In Sunday’s story, State Sen. Brett Guthrie (R-Bowling Green), a casino opponent, was quoted as saying

I think in the Democratic primary the casino issue differentiated (Gov. Steve) Beshear from the other candidates, but I am convinced – and I think most polling showed – that (the general election was more about (former Gov.) Ernie Fletcher’s performance in office than it was an endorsement of expanded casino gambling.

I emphasize the first part of this quote because if what Guthrie says is indeed the case, then Beshear’s path to the governor’s office mirrors that of the late Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, who emerged from out of nowhere and rode popular support for an education lottery into office in 1987 (ironically, beating Beshear among other candidates in a crowded Democratic primary that year).

This article from the Nov. 16, 1998 issue of Time magazine explains how Wilkinson and other southern Democratic governors were able to make the lottery a winning political issue.

It also touches on the opposition to the lottery based on the argument that it acted as a de facto tax on the poor, in some cases exploiting the addiction of compulsive gamblers.

Of course, Wilkinson’s proposal for a state lottery made it onto the ballot in a referendum that passed by a 3-2 margin in 1988.

According to a Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll taken Sept. 13-18, 79 percent of registered voters favor placing the casino issue on the ballot. Another Bluegrass Poll taken Oct. 26-29 showed that 43.6 percent of respondents favored letting casinos operate in Kentucky, compared to 40.7 percent who opposed and 15.7 percent who had no opinion.

Lottery sales jumped from $638.7 million for fiscal year 2002 to $744.2 million in fiscal year 2007, according to the Kentucky Lottery Corporation, but it took several years for all lottery revenue to go directly toward education rather than it going first to the state’s general fund.

At a glance, the arguments on either side of the casino issue (pro-casino forces saying the revenue stream would help fund state programs without raising taxes in a time of budgetary shortfall; opponents saying casinos exploit those who can least afford to gamble) seem to parallel the arguments made 20 years ago regarding the state lottery.

If anything is different this time around, it is the role the Internet will play in driving the casino debate.

Anti-casinoites are able to martial support for their position through this web site.

Among casino backers, their strongest advocate also has an online presence.

These are just a few thoughts for now – expect more on the issue as the story develops over the next several months.

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