February 21, 2020 12:00pm

Most Power Poll members favor expanded gambling

The survey found strong support for sports wagering. Casinos were favored by a smaller majority.

By Tom Eblen

Lexington Power Poll members, by a wide margin, say the General Assembly should expand legal gambling in Kentucky because it could produce significant new revenue for state government. And they don’t think it all should be controlled by the racing industry.

Expanded gambling is an old political debate in Kentucky that took on renewed energy this year because new Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is for it. But Republicans, who have super-majority control of both the state House and Senate, range from skeptical to adamantly opposed.

That makes the questions around expanded gambling a good subject for this month’s Lexington Power Poll, which received responses from 93 of 255 people surveyed, or 36.5 percent.

Legal gambling in Kentucky is now limited to pari-mutuel wagering on horses, the state lottery, controversial “historical racing” slot machines and some forms of charitable gaming. But 75 Power Poll respondents (81 percent) favored some form of expanded gambling, compared to 15 (16 percent) who were opposed. Only three people (3 percent) had no opinion.

The most popular form of expanded gambling among Power Poll respondents was sports wagering. It was favored by 73 people (78 percent), while 14 people (15 percent) said they didn’t want it to be made legal. Six people (6 percent) had no opinion.

Sports wagering has attracted the most attention of state legislators and Beshear, who built some revenues from it into his proposed state budget for the next two years.

House Bill 137 would permit sports wagering, and it is the only one of four expanded gambling bills filed in this session to receive much attention so far. It is now in House committee, where it has been heavily amended. Still, its final prospects remain uncertain.

Lawmakers have taken no action so far on three other proposals. House Bill 181 and a similar measure, Senate Bill 145, would amend the state constitution to allow casino gambling. House Bill 7 would expand gambling without a constitutional amendment.

Expanded gambling advocates say the state is losing out on significant tax revenue, some of which is going across the Ohio River to casinos in Indiana. They say that money could help fund state pension obligations and other needs.

Casinos were less popular than sports wagering with Power Poll members. Still, 59 respondents (63 percent) favored allowing casinos in Kentucky, compared with 27 (29 percent) who oppose them. Seven people (8 percent) had no opinion.

When asked how much extra revenue they thought expanded gambling could produce for state government, 60 Power Poll respondents (65 percent) thought it could be a “significant” amount. Nine people (10 percent) thought it would be “not much” and 24 people (26 percent) didn’t know.

That is a big unknown. Opponents of expanded gambling have argued that proponents’ revenue estimates are overstated, and there’s no way to know for sure.

Another argument against expanded gambling is that it would result in significant social costs, with more people becoming problem gamblers and more poor people losing money they can’t afford and requiring more public assistance.

Power Poll members don’t seem to buy those arguments. Asked if they thought the social costs of expanded gambling would outweigh the economic benefits, 61 respondents (66 percent) didn’t think so, while only 24 (26 percent) did. Eight people (9 percent) had no opinion.

One old controversy about expanded gambling is who should control it. Most of the money from pari-mutuel wagering and “historic racing” slot machines now goes to support Kentucky’s signature Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry.

But 45 Power Poll respondents (48 percent) don’t think sports gambling locations should be limited to horseracing tracks or the Kentucky Speedway auto track, or that it should be overseen by the Kentucky Racing Commission. Thirty people (32 percent) thought it should be, and 18 people (19 percent) had no opinion.

“The Kentucky Racing Commission should have a significant voice in the administration of expanded gambling, but not sole authority. There should also be oversight shared by other state entities including the department of revenue,” said Power Poll member Fran Taylor, who owns Lexington Silver LLC and West High Publishing and formerly worked for Keeneland. “It is critical that Kentucky's equine racing and breeding programs be protected if expanded gambling is to help rather than harm Kentucky's image and economy."

“And, yes, funds should be set aside to help compulsive gamblers and I believe those programs and funds are already in place,” Taylor added. “Gambling has been part of Kentucky's culture for hundreds of years — we should stop pretending that it doesn't exist beyond the racetrack.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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