State Republicans Race To The Rescue For Special Interests

It wasn’t surprising to see Kentucky Republican lawmakers spring into action when the state’s horse racing industry needed something… ASAP. It’s a good thing they acted — with the support of Democrats and Gov. Andy Beshear — to quickly pass Senate Bill 120. However, the unusual display of legislative efficiency reveals a lot about the Republican lawmakers’ dependence on special interests.

Last September, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously decided that slot-like historical horse racing (HHR) machines were not legal forms of gambling under state law, which only allows for three types of gambling: the lottery, charitable games (such as bingo) and pari-mutuel wagering. SB 120 simply changed the definition of pari-mutuel betting to accommodate these machines. So, there, problem solved. 

Now, you might be wondering: “Wait, has the Republican supermajority of state lawmakers done anything to help me and my family survive the global health pandemic? To help save my job or business? Or, to help keep me from being evicted?” 

No. They haven’t passed a single COVID-relief bill. In fact, Republicans have refused to even give Gov. Beshear’s COVID-relief bill (HB 191) a committee hearing. 

See, the difference is one emergency affects you, your family, your job or business, while the other affects Kentucky’s horse racing industry. Do you have a legislative affairs group drawing up legislation on your behalf? But this is what Republican lawmakers are: a proxy vote for special interests; facilitators of think-tank produced, boiler plate bills that serve the powerful.

This is evidenced by contrasting the speed with which they move for a bill critical to the horse industry, while remaining utterly constipated on legalizing sports betting or casino gambling.

Sure, passing SB 120 was the right thing to do. People should be able to gamble on slot machines in Kentucky — whether the game is based purely on chance or some contrived, ambiguous algorithm using historic horse race results (which is still just chance as far as the player’s concerned). And there is no question about the economic importance of the horse racing industry to the state. 

That said, there is no argument that can be made in favor of SB 120 and HHR games that couldn’t also be made for expanded gaming. 

If the Republican argument is tax revenue, then they can’t be in favor of the $15 million in taxes HHR generates each year, while ignoring multiple times that coming from casino and sports gambling. If the argument is preserving the 60,000 horse industry jobs in Kentucky, then they can’t be against the tens of thousands of jobs that would be created from expanded gaming. 

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Continuing to prohibit casino and sports betting is effectively the same (or worse) economically than letting the horse industry fail year after year. When challenged on the morality of legalized gambling, Republican Sen. John Schickel, from Union, whose district includes Turfway Park, questioned, “Is it really our role to tell poor people that we need to protect them from themselves?” the Courier Journal reported.

And he’s right. Small government conservatives should be against dictating how people spend or can’t spend their own money. But Schickel and other Republicans need to make the same arguments for expanded gaming. So, can you see why Kentucky Republicans leapt to pass the horse industry’s priority bill and still haven’t taken up expanded gaming? Or a COVID-relief bill? After all, each would have bipartisan support.

It’s because Republicans are incapable of legislating on their own. They have become — not just beholden to, but — dependent on special interests and conservative think tanks to do their legislative thinking for them.

It’s why Republicans couldn’t come up with a replacement for Obamacare in over a decade. 

It’s also why we see eerily similar restrictive abortion legislation in various Republican-led legislatures every year. 

We see it in this year’s “conscience bill,” which Fairness Campaign CEO Chris Hartman addresses in this issue of LEO, calling it “copy and paste” legislation. It’s all boilerplate policy, generated by dark money, corporate-funded organizations for mass distribution, and Republicans have become reliant on them.

So, when the state Supreme Court struck down HHR operations in September, the horse industry got busy crafting corrective legislation that could get them up and running again in just a few months. This is why it took only six legislative days to get from introduction to state law. (Did I mention Beshear’s COVID-relief bill hasn’t received a committee hearing? And it was introduced over a month ago.)

Perhaps, if racetracks become vaccine distribution sites, we can get some movement on COVID relief. Or, more likely, once Churchill Downs is ready, we’ll get some expanded gaming in Kentucky.

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