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Race to the Bottom

Race to the Bottom

I'm deeply discouraged by the announcement of Churchill Downs and Keeneland today regarding their plans for a racetrack in Oak Grove.  As I have been since I first ran for the Senate, I am staunchly opposed to gaming – it is a regressive tax, targeting the middle and lower income earners, and in this case, the military families that live in and around Christian County, many of whom already live on meager salaries.

I believe gaming is bad for the area and the rest of the Commonwealth, and the opening of a racetrack, while adding a few jobs and bringing in some revenue, comes at too steep a price for the community.

Unfortunately, I don't have a vote on this in the legislature, but it is my sincere hope the racing commission denies their application for a license.  If I have any influence on the project I hope that I can stop it.  I'm for all the jobs and economic development we can find for Christian, Todd and Logan counties (and the rest of Kentucky), but not from gambling.  I wish there was a way to help Kentucky’s signature Thoroughbred industry thrive without it.

Gaming, indeed.

My position against gaming is well known, particularly in Frankfort.  Gaming lobbyists never waste time bringing it up to me.  Despite my personal, philosophical objection to the idea of gaming I'm still willing to have a learned discussion about it.  I'm open to hearing opposing view points.  My job as a legislator requires me to keep an open mind and weigh ideas.  If anyone who supports gaming ever came to me to talk about it I'd be happy to have that discussion, but unfortunately, so far, their arguments have failed even the slightest examination.  There are lots of questions gaming advocates haven't answered.  If they want it to pass, like advocates for any legislation, they must be prepared to answer the questions and own the results - good or bad.

A recent article in the New York Times discussed some of these questions in the context of a study done by a partnership of universities.  It's a short read that I highly recommend, regardless of your position.

The debate in Kentucky circles the often cited "let the people decide" sales pitch.  I posed to gaming supporters during the 2014 session the following hypothetical:  If we moved such a law forward, and put the gaming expansion matter on the ballot for voters to defeat or pass, would the gaming industry consent to spend just as much money advertising the woes of gaming as it does advertising it's merits?  Supporters conveniently fail to say out loud what everyone in state politics believes - the best ad campaign usually wins.  How many of you reading this believes the gaming industry would be outspent by those of us who oppose gaming?  Casinos made about $35 Billion in 2011. The Family Foundation and the Kentucky Baptist Convention don't exactly compete.

While I'm at it, here are a couple more questions that must be answered by the gaming industry:

  1. What portion of your patrons are in the middle and lower income groups of the communities/regions where the casino exists?

  2. What do you do to educate your patrons that you are taking steps to attract prolonged gaming? For example, do you inform them that slots are designed to entice more gaming (i.e., "near misses" and penny bets)?

  3. What financial information about patrons do you collect?

  4. How much do middle and low income gamblers lose as a percentage of their income?

  5. What impact do casinos have on existing businesses in the areas where they operate?

  6. Excluding management, what are the mean and median incomes for your job positions?

  7. What losses in revenue do churches and non-profits experience when a casino enters a region?

  8. Similarly, do churches and non-profits experience an increase in service requests and outreach in regions where you operate?

  9. What amount, if any, do you set aside to provide for financial education programming and does that programming use a curriculum that cautions against gaming habits? How do you make your patrons aware of the education programming?

 These are just a few to start with.  So far, I haven't had a conversation with a gaming supporter that didn't bring up a handful more that went unanswered.  I'm not holding my breath.

Too Little Too Long

Over the course of my nine-plus months as a State Senator, I have received correspondence on a number of issues. People experiencing problems navigating government bureaucracy in the state or at the federal level, feeling frustrated about a law already on the books or a law they wish would be put on the books, and

Week In Review - March 1

FRANKFORT – With only eight legislative days left, the 2013 General Assembly Session has come to a major turning point. As I have reported in the past, Kentucky faces an immense unfunded liability in our public employee pension system. Senate Bill 2, a product of a bipartisan, bicameral task force that heard from stakeholders, retirement experts, and independent researchers, was drafted to protect tax-payers as well as current employees’ and retirees’ retirement from insolvency, passed the Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan vote. (SB 2 does not apply to teachers’ retirement and would not impact pensions for current employees and retirees.) The House of Representatives removed any structural changes to the strained system and proposed to pay for it with revenues from expanded lottery sales, Keno, and Instant Racing instead of discussing this part during the normal budget process of 2014. They refuse to discuss the bill with us in conference committee if we don’t accept their flawed financial plan. The time for gotcha politics is over; we must have a sober discussion about this very important issue. Bipartisan task forces have worked before on unemployment insurance and corrections reform. The Senate is still working and we want bipartisan consensus. Structural changes can be made now to the pension system that will strengthen the entire fund. We are hopeful that the House Leadership will come to the table on this issue that affects all Kentuckians. The Senate is also doing what we can to put our own house in order. Senate Bill 7 seeks to close the loophole in the state retirement system that had allowed some legislators to significantly increase their state pensions. Incidentally, Senate Bill 2 directs that any new legislators must be in the regular state employee system. Both these bills together work to make sure that state employees are treated similarly whether you work in the Senate or on a state road.

In other news, the Senate continued working on other bills involving elections, gun rights, and education.  Voting is at the foundation of our democracy.  Candidates come and go, but the process by which we elect our leaders lives on and must be protected.  While each vote cast is equal, those cast by America's bravest seem to be more sacred.  Generations of men and women serving on battle lines across the globe have protected our freedom to vote, yet their own votes are delayed and possibly uncounted. Senate Bill 1, which I co-sponsored, takes a substantial step toward making the voting process easier for military and those Kentuckians living abroad.  Electronically transmitting the ballot gets the ballot in the hands of those voters earlier so it can be filled out and returned on a timely basis. The bill also establishes a group to study the feasibility and security of electronically returning the ballots, which is a goal I hope we can achieve soon. Right now, the county clerks are concerned that the integrity of the ballot and the anonymity of the voter may be compromised if transmitted via email, fax or the web.

Senate Bill 55 will move the election date of constitutional officers to presidential election years. This has two benefits: it greatly increases voter participation because more people vote in presidential years and it has the bonus attribute of saving both local and state governments millions statewide by not having to hold off-year elections.

We also passed two bills protecting the right to bear arms.  Senate Bill 129 protects our Second Amendment rights by clarifying that the federal government cannot encroach on Kentuckians’ right to bear arms by limiting the reach of new federal regulations. This bill also takes a stand for our rights under the Tenth Amendment which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."  Senate Bill 150 makes it easier to obtain a concealed-carry license by eliminating the residency requirement.  Applicants seeking the license must still go thought the required training course on firearm safety and related statutes.

We have several programs in place to help kids who may not necessarily learn in the traditional manner or need more help than their peers to understand their lessons. But there are also students who are motivated and prepared enough to want to continue pushing themselves and these children need our support too. Senate Bill 61 would allow for early graduation for qualified students who meet set requirements.  Senate Bill 64, sponsored by Sen. Stan Humphries, rewards students who work to graduate early by allowing them to access their full KEES funding.

Finally, I passed House Bill 8 and House Bill 9 from my Judiciary Committee this week. Both bills, sponsored by Rep. Tilley, are good pieces of legislation I was glad to advance. HB 9 provides legal protections to people trying to escape from violent relationships; HB 8 continues Kentucky's great work toward fighting synthetic drugs which continue to plague our communities.

We are entering the time period in Session when the House and the Senate will start discussing differences on bills that have passed both chambers. There is still time to contact me with any concerns or questions or comments. You can do so by leaving a message for me or any legislator toll free at 1-800-372-7181, by calling my Frankfort office directly at (502) 564-8100, or by emailing me here.  By logging on the General Assembly's website you can read the bills and see our schedules.  I also encourage you to bookmark this site and follow me on Twitter @KyWhitney!