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Late last month, Gov. Steve Beshear announced he will call the General Assembly back into session to tackle what is one of the most underappreciated stories in several years.
While George Bush and Barack Obama were handing out billions and billions of dollars in bank bailouts and economic stimulus packages, somewhere along the way we apparently lost track of exactly how much money we are talking about.
Kentucky is facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year.
It’s almost an unfathomable amount of money.
According to Forbes Magazine, the Cincinnati Reds are worth about $342 million. With a billion dollars, you could buy the Reds, the Indians and Braves and make one really good team.
For $1 billion, you could take every man, woman and child in Kentucky to Kings Island – four times – and have money left over for Pepsi and pizza.
According to Feed the Children, a billion dollars would feed 100,000,000 hungry children for a month.
Maybe that paragraph points out one of the problems.
In journalism, reporters are taught to write “$1 billion” when we actually mean “$1,000,000,000.” When you start seeing all those zeroes, it does make you wince.
When you hear a TV reporter discussing billions of dollars, it barely scratches the surface of a lot of people’s mind because it’s nearly an inconceivable amount.
So here we stand as Kentuckians – facing a billion dollar shortfall.
What can we (or the government) do?
There are no easy answers.
This kind of shortfall would not respond to the typical political “out” of calling for belt-tightening.
Raising taxes (in any economic climate) is pretty much out of the question much less in such tough times as we are facing now.
Another option is cutting spending. There are plenty of programs that could be streamlined, cut back or shuttered.
But to make up $1 billion, the cuts would not be confined to “pork” programs. Teachers, prosecutors and law enforcement would also feel the effects.
If state government starts slashing funding across the board, it’s unlikely that anyone who receives a paycheck from public funds would be left unaffected.
So, what kind of brilliant scheme will save Kentucky from bankruptcy?
Beshear supports expanding gambling at horse-racing tracks at several locations across the state.
Under the plan proposed during the 2008 General Assembly session, selling gaming licenses could immediately pump millions into state coffers with more money directed to the state once the race tracks actually hookup the electronic slot machines.
When I was covering the General Assembly for the Kentucky Press Association, I sat in on a lot of hearings relating to the effects of expanded gaming on local communities. It seemed for every horror story of organized crime, prostitution and upswing in alcohol-related arrests, there was a story of casinos being good neighbors and all the benefits of increased revenue and good-paying jobs.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of expanding gambling but a lot of Kentuckians enjoy a night at the casino.
Just from my personal experience, most Indiana gamblers seem to be average people with some disposable income, looking for an evening’s entertainment. If casino-style gambling comes to Kentucky, I would hope this stays true.
For everyone who opposes expanding gaming, let’s consider that phrase “expanded” gaming.
Gambling isn’t new to the commonwealth. Since 1789, people have been betting on horse racing in Kentucky.
Between the lottery and wagering on horse racing, gambling is a pretty entrenched idea in the commonwealth.
For me, one of the strongest arguments for expanded gaming comes out of Indiana.
The Hooiser State is looking to replace The Bluegrass State as the horse-racing capital of the world.
With the influx of revenue from casino-style gaming at tracks, the Indiana tracks are raising the purses offered for races.
Horse owners and betters will naturally gravitate to the larger purses in their own self-interest.
It would be a shame to lose one of Kentucky’s signature industries to Indiana.
There are plenty of people who object to expanded gambling on moral grounds. These are legitimate concerns and any new gambling laws should contain provisions for prevention and treatment of problem gamblers.
It’s not often that “everyone’s doin’ it” should be a real concern in determining public policy. But if all the neighboring states adopt gaming as a means to raise revenue, Kentucky will continue to lose millions in potential revenue while our horse-racing industry continues to get hit hard.
Expanded gaming is not a cure-all for Kentucky’s financial problems but it is a idea that should be explored while the commonwealth looks for ways to balance its budget.
So far, it seems to be one of the few ideas on the table.