GOP lawmakers: Push to legalize casinos would fail in Senate

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FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 file photo, Kentucky Governor and Republican candidate Matt Bevin, left, shakes hands with Attorney General and Democratic candidate Andy Beshear before the start of a gubernatorial debate in Paducah, Ky. Looking to pull the plug on one of Democrat Andy Beshear’s campaign themes, two top Republican lawmakers said Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 that any effort to legalize casino gambling would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Looking to pull the plug on one of Democrat Andy Beshear's campaign themes, two top Republican lawmakers said Thursday that any effort to legalize casino gambling in Kentucky would be "dead on arrival" in the Senate.

The statement reflected a policy reversal for Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, who once sponsored a ballot proposal to legalize casino gambling.

Beshear touts casino gambling as a long-overdue way to generate more than $500 million in yearly tax revenue. He proposes using the money to support Kentucky's underfunded public pension systems. That money now flows to other states where Kentuckians gamble at casinos, he says on the campaign trail.

In a joint statement, Thayer and state Senate President Robert Stivers said casino-related revenue estimates are "drastically overstated," and that any measure to legalize casinos would be "unequivocally off the table" in the GOP-dominated Senate.

"We want to be abundantly clear, there is absolutely no chance any such effort would pass the Senate in an upcoming session," they said. "Any bill proposing casino gambling would be dead on arrival."

Their statement comes less than three weeks before what's shaping up as a close Nov. 5 election pitting Beshear against Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

Beshear's campaign responded that the state needs to generate new revenue to meet its pension obligations and touted casinos as a "commonsense" way to accomplish that.

"Andy will work across the aisle to get this done, regardless of the political rhetoric that gets thrown out during the final days of a political campaign," Beshear campaign manager Eric Hyers said in a statement.

The Senate's top-ranking Democrat, Sen. Morgan McGarvey, said there's bipartisan support for expanded gambling.

"The reality is, we're flushing this money down the drain to neighboring states to fix their roads and schools and to fund their pensions," he said in a statement. "There's a reason these casinos are built right along our border."

Thayer pushed for legalizing casino gambling when Beshear's father was governor. In 2012, Thayer sponsored a proposal to put a casino amendment on the ballot. That measure failed, as did other casino proposals during Steve Beshear's two terms as governor. Like his son, Steve Beshear made legalizing casino gambling a key part of his run for governor. Steve Beshear preceded Bevin in office.

In a phone interview Thursday, Thayer said he changed his position on casino gambling in recent years.

HIs previous support was based on generating new revenue to make Kentucky's horse tracks more competitive by increasing race purses, he said. Since then, racetracks have tapped into so-called Instant Racing as a revenue source. The slot-style machines allow people to bet on past horse races, showing video of condensed races. It's become a successful business model for tracks, he said.

As for casino gambling, Thayer said: "I just feel like the ship has sailed."

The casino issue is one of many issues separating Kentucky's bitter rivals for governor.

At a recent debate, Bevin referred to casino gambling as "fool's gold" and said Beshear's push doesn't account for societal costs. The way to increase tax revenue, Bevin said, is to boost job creation. Beshear says his plan calls for expanding gambling in a "responsible manner" that includes dealing with gambling addiction.

Thayer said he supports legalizing sports betting in Kentucky. Supporters are expected to push the proposal again in 2020 after a sports betting bill died during this year's legislative session. An analysis of this year's proposal estimated the venture would bring in at least $20 million a year in new taxes.

Meanwhile, the resistance to Beshear's casino plan underscores the challenges the Democrat would face in dealing with a GOP-dominated legislature if he's elected. But Bevin has at times had his differences with lawmakers on key issues as well. Last year, the legislature overrode Bevin's vetoes of a two-year state spending plan and a tax measure to help pay for increases in public education spending.

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