Pension crisis fuels new momentum for casino gambling in Kentucky

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The pension crisis has renewed the push for expanded gambling in Kentucky as lawmakers look to fill a $30 billion to $60 billion hole without raising taxes.

Rep. Jerry Miller (R-Louisville) plans to pre-file a casino gambling bill for the 2018 General Assembly. Miller said casinos are a sure bet to raise at least some of the $1 billion a year needed to shore up public pensions.

“We have to meet our obligations, the promises we made to retirees,” Miller said.

Miller said he and co-sponsor Sen. Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville) will likely file their bill before this fall's planned special session on pension reform.

“Pension reform is going to reduce that billion by some number," Miller said. "We don't know what yet. But it's clear we need a lot of money."

There's a growing sense among some lawmakers that casinos are the answer.

“I personally don't sense a desire in the legislature to have a tax increase,” Miller said.

In fact, another casino bill has already been pre-filed by Democratic Reps. Dennis Keene and Rick Rand.

“There's no other alternative revenue streams being considered,” Keene said.

Also, Sen. Julian Carroll (D-Frankfort) has filed a bill to legalize sports betting. It would set the framework to allow any horse racing track or off-track wagering facility to offer sports wagering.

“The state has a moral and legal obligation to fund state pensions,” Carroll said in a statement. “Reducing the benefits of thousands of hard-working public servants is not an option.”

But opponents warn, even with the pension crisis, gambling is a bad deal, opening the door to crime and other problems.

“I don't think that creating a crisis is the way to solve a crisis," said Paul Chitwood, Executive Director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. :"In fact, we'd be creating more than one crisis if we welcome casinos."

Opponents have a powerful ally in Gov. Matt Bevin.

“The benefits are not offset by the cost," Bevin said earlier this month on WHAS Radio’s Leland Conway Show. "The societal cost of that is not proven to work for states that have done it. It just hasn't."

But Miller said gambling is the least painful option to fix the pension problem.

“Sometimes as a legislator, I have to do what's best for Kentucky," he said. "And I think this is best for Kentucky."

Even with the pension debt looming, expanded gambling is still longshot. It requires amending the state constitution, which means a gambling bill must pass with 60 percent approval in both the House and Senate, and then pass a statewide vote.

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