To slot, or not to slot: Why can't Kentucky get its gambling laws straight? [News]

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This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

Although not quite Shakespearean in its various acts, intrigues, subplots and human frailties, it has become a great and ongoing farce that Kentucky, of all places, can’t get its gambling laws straight. “We know what we are,” the Bard once said of such matters, “but know not what we may be.”

And more’s the pity. Here is a semi-Southern state historically laden with corrupt politics and moral impropriety, a commonwealth forever boasting of its fast horses, fine bourbon, beautiful women and high school basketball recruits — and yet it continually runs distant second to the boring “Cornfield Kingdom” of Indiana in legalized sin.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Look no further than this recent story in the Courier-Journal to see proof of such inept imperfection:

LEXINGTON, Ky.— State racing regulators approved regulations that would allow the state’s racetracks to offer a game that resembles slot machines, but Gov. Steve Beshear conceded some tracks may not use the game.

Churchill Downs officials weren’t ready to commit to installing the machines. Track president Kevin Flanery said the company wants to see the move survive legal scrutiny. Even then there are doubts that gamblers will play the pari-mutuel game with more conventional casino games available close by in Indiana.

Kentucky racetracks offered gambling devices that only resemble slot machines. Oh, please — its educational system is often called into doubt, its citizens suffer mightily from ill health, its politics are rural and clannish — and now the great state of Kentucky can’t even gamble good! Where’s the pride, the caring, the sense of history?
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

Yet expectation is the root of all heartache. The proof lies in Indiana. It is the self-styled “Crossroads of America,” the land of heterogeneous hayseeds, and yet its coffers are fully capable of funding at least one Ohio River bridge — and it is at least 25 lengths up on Kentucky in slot machine and video-gambling revenue.

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.

Not that Indiana came by its sin without the required world-class hypocrisy. Its early legislation legalizing slot machines demanded that all casinos be on boats — a Biblical condition apparently meaning blackjack and slot machines were fine for God-fearing Hoosiers sailing on water but much more morally problematic on terra firma.

Yes, ’tis true: Virtue is bold and goodness never fearful.

An overflow of good, of course, always converts to bad. And so it went with the Indiana casinos after the casino at French Lick Resort opened in 2006 in a small, man-made pond miles away from its original intended home on Patoka Lake. Duly nicknamed the “Boat in the Moat,” the whole floating piety concept was politically grounded two years later when approval was given for the moat to be filled in, creating Indiana’s first land-based casino.

Tis’ not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after.

You betcha. What is past is prologue: Hick-laden Indiana ranked third in the nation in gambling revenue in 2009 — sucking in $878 million in tax dollars on gross revenue of $2.58 billion.

Is it no wonder that money-starved Kentucky has a lean and hungry look?

Not that Kentucky hasn’t been trying. Can there be any doubt that the slick, newly rebuilt Churchill Downs was redesigned with a casino in mind? Its lovable, rambling and disjointed architecture is lost to history, and the famed Twin Spires diminished enough to give the place the neo-pari-mutuel look of a Las Vegas tourist trap

Morality has always given way to the need for tax dollars: To do a great right, do a little wrong. Kentucky already has a state-run lottery, charitable gaming and pari-mutuel betting — and back rooms harboring untaxed video games in countless truck stops, bars and social clubs. What are a few thousand slot machines at four racetracks after that? Where do you draw the line once you become a little bit gambling pregnant?

There is ample evidence all around us that ’tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.

The continually perceived villain lurking in the hallways of this farce is Kentucky Senate President David Williams, the Prince of Paucity, a man most foul and mean-spirited whose legacy to Kentucky will include nothing beyond the feathering of his own tribal nest. Unless, of course, he works on his three-point jump shot and teams up with Richie Farmer, the Clay County Demigod, to sweeten his gubernatorial chances.

Alas, poor Yoricks, as I write this the new faux-slots plan was being placed in the money-stained hands of the lawyers — and you know what Shakespeare had to say about lawyers.

Photo: Louisvlle Magazine