When he ran for governor in 2007, Steve Beshear said he wanted the voters of Kentucky to have the chance to vote for or against expanded gambling. But now, Gov. Steve Beshear says a constitutional amendment is not necessary to pass legislation authorizing video lottery terminals at existing horse tracks.

“In 2007 we were talking about establishing the ability to have casinos and I believe such a move would require a constitutional amendment,” Beshear said in an interview Wednesday with CNHI News Service.

“We now have two attorney generals’ opinions that say we can allow video lottery terminals at the race tracks by legislation and that it does not require a constitutional amendment,” he said.

In fact, there are four AG opinions, two on either side of the question, but Beshear said his position has not changed since 2007 or in light of the failure to pass a measure in the 2008 General Assembly to allow a constitutional amendment for casinos. The distinction, he said, is the difference between VLTs at existing gambling locations and full-fledged casinos.

He pointed out that the legislature’s highest profile critic of expanded gambling — Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville — agrees no constitutional amendment is necessary after the amendment in the late 1980s authorizing a lottery. And House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, issued one of the two opinions saying an amendment is unnecessary when he was Attorney General from 2004 to 2008.

Beshear concedes there is one difference between the present debate on expanded gambling and when he ran for governor in 2007 — the horse industry is “right in the middle of a crisis.”

He said brood mares, stallions and race horses are shipped out of Kentucky daily because owners are attracted to higher breeding incentives and purses in other states.

“We are in a crisis situation and we need to move fast,” Beshear said. “Passing VLT legislation can be done quickly.”

Opponents say the legislation almost certainly faces court challenges without a constitutional amendment and the time that takes is no more than it would take to pass the amendment. Beshear concedes such legislation will face litigation if it passes the General Assembly, but he said, “That litigation can be moved rapidly and be decided by the Kentucky Supreme Court in a matter of months.”

Beshear, an attorney and former Attorney General, said a declaratory judgment action can be filed in circuit court on which a judge could rule quickly. And litigants could seek an immediate, direct review by the state Supreme Court, bypassing the Court of Appeals.

“I think the Kentucky Supreme Court would accept that case directly because of the importance of it,” said Beshear.

Beshear’s VLT measure passed the House but died in a Senate committee in the 2009 June special session. Since then, however, one Democrat has replaced a Republican senator in a special election and Jody Haydon of Bardstown is trying to become the second. Democrat Haydon faces Republican Jimmy Higdon in a Dec. 8 special election to succeed Republican Dan Kelly who accepted Beshear’s appointment to the circuit court bench.

Should Haydon win, Republicans would hold only a one-seat edge (19-18), although the chamber’s lone independent, Bob Leeper of Paducah, usually sides with Republicans. That might make it easier to pass the VLT legislation in that chamber.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. The Richmond Register is a CNHI newspaper.

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