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May 9, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: Fletcher gambles with lost revenue

Fortunately for the commonwealth’s battered image, Gov. Ernie Fletcher got through the Kentucky Derby without mishap.He actually spent a couple of hours shaking hands at the Governor’s Breakfast instead of bolting after a few minutes, as he did in 2004.He didn’t issue an executive order making it illegal for gays to drink mint juleps or bet on gray horses or use the same infield Port-o-Lets as their fellow citizens.And most impressively, he got through the trophy presentation as presented by Yum! Brands without needing an opinion from the courts or a ventriloquist representing the Republican base or even a pardon from Mitch McConnell.Fortunately for the governor, Churchill Downs now sells the vast majority of its Derby boxes and suites to corporations, out-of-towners, celebrities and scalpers instead of to bettors who actually live and pay taxes in Kentucky, support thoroughbred racing throughout the year and care about the industry’s future.Given the opportunity, these individuals might actually have confronted the governor and blistered him about his appalling lack of support for the commonwealth’s signature industry.Far too often, Fletcher ducks tough decisions by claiming to be neutral. For example, he believes in a budget that is “revenue-neutral.” That’s a code phrase for saying that he prefers to cut services and programs instead of developing the new revenue streams necessary to fund the commonwealth’s pressing needs, beginning with education.He also claimed to be neutral on the issue of expanded gambling, but that’s another Fletcher cop-out. By declining to support slot machines at race tracks and/or land-based casinos, Fletcher tacitly opposes both on behalf of his rural, narrow-minded, right-wing religious constituency.Neutral is not a quality you want in a leader.Neutral is synonymous with bland. Neutral is beige. Neutral is the non-gear in an automobile in which you idle instead of actually going in a direction. Neutral is never a good thing when there’s a clear-cut issue at hand that demands courage, vision and decisiveness.Upon being elected, Fletcher said he would remain neutral on expanded gambling until the horse industry got its act together and came to him with a unified proposal. The industry complied. Through KEEP (Kentucky Equine Education Project), the various breeds — thoroughbred, standardbred, saddlebred, quarter-horses, etc. — came together for the first time and sacrificed self-interest for the common good.Led by former Gov. Brereton Jones, the state’s horsemen contributed millions to KEEP’s lobbying and public-awareness campaign. For the first time, the public and its elected leaders were made precisely aware of the staggering positive impact the equine industry has on Kentucky’s economy and image.In addition, KEEP compiled statistics that graphically demonstrated how expanded gambling in other states is draining revenue out of Kentucky and putting the commonwealth’s racing and breeding industry at a competitive disadvantage with states that offer bigger purses for owners and more attractive incentives for breeders.And yet Fletcher, whose heart and soul belong to the religious right, refused to budge, which in turn gave the cowards and hypocrites in the General Assembly the out they needed to duck the issue again.Some enterprising Democrat should get the numbers on just how much Kentucky money was bet at casinos in neighboring states while the governor and the General Assembly were whistling past the graveyard.The religious right’s argument against expanded gambling is that it will create new gamblers who will become so addicted that families will be ruined, bankruptcies will rise and the commonwealth will have to put more funding into recovery programs.The trouble is, this argument makes about as much sense as Fletcher’s embarrassing and contemptible campaigns to bust up labor unions, interject “intelligent design” into public-school classrooms and deny protection to state employees because of their sexual orientation.The gamblers already have been created. They leave Kentucky by the droves every day to play the slots and other games at casinos in Ohio and Indiana. If they become addicted, the commonwealth must pay for their recovery programs without getting any revenue from their gambling.The most obvious and disturbing result of Fletcher’s “neutrality” on expanded gambling is that he has bridled the spirit of the horse industry for which he expressed his love on Derby Day.It’s too bad that Churchill Downs has pretty much shut out the $2 bettor and the small breeder from the Kentucky Derby as presented by Yum! Brands. This governor needs to be lobbied at every opportunity by the people who love the horse industry and actually know something about it. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com