“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it. “– Mark Twain

Kentuckians are famous for their feuds. The current imbroglio over the pros and cons of legalizing slot machines at racetracks is a doozy. Yet all of the vitriol and finger pointing has only exacerbated the situation and hardened the resolve of the opposing sides.

During the debate, the lightning rod has been Senate President David Williams, whose anti-slots position has kept enabling legislation from being considered by the full legislature or put to a vote of the public. Williams, a Republican, has alienated many Republican Party loyalists. For example, the Farish family, which operates Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky and Texas, has about as deep of roots as one can get in the Republican Party, with Will Farish serving as President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Great Britain and his son Bill Farish working in the administration of President George H. W. Bush.

The Paulick Report and the Blood-Horse magazine last week both carried a lengthy letter to the editor from Bill Farish. He wrote, in part:

“As a lifelong Republican, and a member of a Kentucky family that has worked on behalf of the Republican Party and Republican administrations, I can say without reservation that protecting our signature industry is not a partisan issue. In fact, the Republican Party should be standing up for Kentucky businesses, Kentucky jobs, and a free market environment that would allow Kentuckians to fairly compete with their out of state competitors. Due to Senator Williams’ utter mismanagement, this issue now pits Republicans against Republicans, not Republicans against Democrats, as he would have us believe…Government interference with Kentucky businesses and job creation does not sound like any Republican philosophy I am familiar with.”

Senator Williams responded to Mr. Farish in the Paulick Report:

“I never cease to be amazed by the manner in which slot interests and their spokesmen such as Bill Farish continue to mislead Kentuckians. The proposed expansion of gambling in Kentucky is bad economic policy for the state and for the horse industry. Those tied to the slots may do their best to raise the specter of false divisions and false hope, but the reality of the situation is unchanged.”

Then Senator Williams cited and elaborated on what he called “facts.” For brevity, I have omitted the elaboration, as the reader can find it in the Paulick Report (click here).

“Fact #1: Expanded gambling will flood Kentucky with funds that will skew our body politic.

 Fact #2: Once slots arrive, horse-owners and trainers will get the short end of the stick.

Fact #3: Slots will not save Kentucky’s budget.

Fact #4: The horse business is beset with problems endemic to the industry itself.”

In other venues, Senator Williams has expounded with different rationale on why he thinks slots are not in the best interests of the people of Kentucky.

Although a couple of these reasons have merit, on the whole, there is a divide a mile wide between the core principles of the Republican Party and what Senator Williams has been saying and how he has been acting by bottling up a slots bill in committee.  Objective observers, of any political persuasion, would agree that the Republican Party professes to stand for the pillars of limited government, a strong national defense, free-market entrepreneurial solutions to problems, deregulation, and leaving people alone to make their own choices. Therefore, all Kentucky Republicans, not just those in the racing industry, must wonder about the controlling behavior of Senator Williams, who has been aided and abetted by many of his elected Republican party colleagues in the state Senate.

In the past several decades, the Republican Party at the national level has had an uneasy alliance between traditional “economic libertarian” Republicans and “social conservative” Republicans. The latter do not subscribe as strongly to the idea of empowering people to make their own choices and decisions, especially when so doing conflicts with one of their deeply held moral or ethical beliefs. If Senator Williams were to stand aside and let Kentuckians render a decision about slots in a statewide vote, the devices would most likely be legalized, or so the polls indicate. This would not sit well with the social conservatives who Senator Williams is ostensibly placating.

I would not be so presumptuous as to make a judgment here on which side of the slots issue has the moral high ground. My point is that there is often a “values” dichotomy between what “libertarian/economic” Republican voters hold true versus what “social conservative” Republicans believe.

As a result, there will be an impasse as long as Senator Williams, evidently a social conservatives advocate, is in charge. Note from the Senator’s responses in the Paulick Report that he is inclined to divine, with considerable surety, what is best for Kentuckians and for the horse industry:  “The proposed expansion of gambling in Kentucky is bad economic policy for the state and for the horse industry. ” Senator Williams’ all-knowing attitude and schoolmaster approach has the tenor of elitism and is much closer to a “nanny state” philosophy than it is to the overarching principles of the GOP.

Given this impasse, a route to resolving the slots issue, one way or the other, is the method being pursued by Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, which is to campaign to replace the Republican majority in the Senate. As an incumbent governor from the Democratic Party, who rode into office on the promise of expanded gambling, Mr. Beshear has the right and obligation to do so.  However, he has been criticized by some prominent members of his own party for weak and ineffectual leadership, most notably for failing to make expanded gambling the top priority in the first legislative session after his election.

Another avenue is more expedient in that Republicans control the Senate now. Republican senators can simply decide to revert to the bedrock Republican principle of trusting their constitutents to choose what is best. This is perfectly consistent with the Republican preference for, say, freeing people to decide how to spend their own money, via tax cuts, instead of maintaining higher tax rates and leaving it to politicians and bureaucrats to allocate.

A Republican senator in Kentucky, including Mr. Williams, can take the position that, while he or she may be personally opposed to slot machines being legalized, the majority opinion of Kentucky voters shall prevail. In other words, “I find gambling to be repugnant, or inadvisable policy, but I hold sacrosanct the prerogative of the citizenry to make such an important decision.”

What is needed to solve the slots issue in Kentucky is not a revolt of Republican senators, but rather, a coming home to the principles that embody the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan. Republican senators should matter-of-factly tell Senator Williams that it is no longer acceptable—in fact, it is anathema—to go on substituting his judgment for that of Kentucky voters about what is right for the Commonwealth…even if he ultimately is shown to be correct in some of his views.

It is terrribly condescending for Senator Williams to fear that Kentuckians will be “mislead” by “slots interests” and to assert that “Expanded gambling will flood Kentucky with funds that will skew our body politic.”  Constituents are intelligent enough and discerning enough to sort out what is best. They do not need any government official deciding on their behalf and they certainly do not need to be shielded from out-of-state messages in the media. In effect, the Senator is saying that the voters of Kentucky are naive and that their elected officials in the legislature will be swayed by money.

U. S. Senator Mitch McConnell, the highest ranking Republican in the United States Senate and a longtime close  friend to horse racing and breeding, needs to bring pressure to bear, so as to ensure that if Kentucky’s flagship industry and main tourist attraction is to atrophy, it won’t be because of the objections of a single state senator, who just might be mistaken.

Senator Williams himself deep down surely would welcome a face-saving resolution to this contentious issue.  All sides to the slots brouhaha could stick to their positions and maintain their dignity by simply agreeing to submit the question to a plebiscite. Subsequently, the losing side can say with sincerity, “The people have spoken and I respect their decision.”  That is the spirit of a government of the people, of a republic with a lower-case r.

If GOP senators in Kentucky were to start acting like Republicans, the slots controversy would soon be settled.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business



  1. In response to Mr. Twain, it’s usually the latter.

    You’re absolutely right about putting it to a vote. If Kentuckians don’t want slots at the tracks, Williams wins. If they do, he can still save a little face by saying that he stood his ground, but, as you note, “the people have spoken.”

    Government needn’t be as difficult as those governing us often make it.

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