Editorial Submission: When Conservatives Act Like Liberals in Frankfort

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—Respectfully submitted by Martin Cothran, Senior Policy Analyst of The Family Foundation—

The two most basic things that distinguish conservatives is, first, a devotion to constitutional government, and, secondly, an equal devotion to the free market. On the one hand, conservative politicians frequently point to the Constitution as the lodestar of their political thought, and they often call themselves “constitutionalists.” On the other hand, they profess proud support for economic freedom.

But when it comes to the issue of casino gambling, many politicians who claim to be conservatives all of a sudden come down with an identity crisis.

This Thursday, lawmakers in a Kentucky State Senate committee will consider a bill that will legalize so-called “historical horse racing.” The bill is designed as a response to a unanimous 7-0 decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court finding that historical horse racing slot machines were not legal on the grounds that they are were not pari-mutuel wagering on horse races as the horse tracks operating them had claimed.

But the self-professed conservatives pushing this legislation don’t even try to hide the fact that it is unconstitutional. Kentucky’s Constitution prohibits any gambling outside of pari-mutuel horse racing, charitable gaming, and the Kentucky Lottery. Those pushing the bill not only ignore the state’s Constitution, but the recent Court’s decision.

The Court laid down the five criteria for wagering to be considered pari-mutuel and found that historical racing slot machines fail the test: 1) they don’t involve bettors wagering among each other; 2) they don’t involve bettors betting on the same event; 3) they don’t involve bettors setting the pari-mutuel payout odds; 4) they don’t involve pari-mutuel pools being paid out to winning bettors; and 5) they don’t allow the racing association to participate in the wagering. 

Wagering at horse tracks abide by all five, but these machines do not, which make them more like slot machines than horse races.

The bill simply and clumsily defines non-pari-mutuel wagering as “pari-mutuel wagering,” using a definition that is in conflict with virtually every other definition of pari-mutuel in the country.

And not only does the bill thumb its nose at the Court and the Constitution, it goes against every principle of free market economics ever conceived by continuing to give the exclusive right to operate the machines to a few wealthy horse tracks. The biggest recipient of this legislative largess is Churchill Downs, a publicly-traded corporation.

The state has received relatively little revenue from the machines. Most of the money has made its way either to Churchill Downs out-of-state investors or into the pockets of wealthy race track owners.

It’s something average Kentuckians should remember while they’re waiting for the next federal stimulus check. 

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