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June 2012
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Kentucky has stood by too long, needs to reclaim gaming dollars



I ran for governor in 2007 because I truly believed that Kentucky was being left behind. I looked around at other states that were managing to grow jobs, promote a healthy business environment, educate their students while maintaining fiscal responsibility, and I believed that Kentucky could accomplish those same goals with strong leadership and a clear vision.

As I campaigned across the state, I made it clear on numerous occasions that I was opposed to expanded gaming in Kentucky. I did not believe that the benefits of expanded gaming would outweigh the costs, and I discounted the positive economic impact that expanded gaming would have on our local communities and the state as a whole. I worried that expanded gaming would somehow sully the tradition and fabric of our state. So, throughout the primary election of 2007, I campaigned hard against expanded gaming.

Looking back six years later, it has become painfully obvious to me that I was wrong, and that I was wrong for several different reasons. The first reason is the most obvious - while I was campaigning against expanded gaming in Kentucky, I failed to fully realize that gaming is already prevalent in Kentucky. The only distinction is that the gaming facilities are located on the other side of our state borders instead of this side. In fact, 83.5 percent of Kentuckians live within a two hour drive of an existing casino in a neighboring state. If we expanded gaming here, that number would only go up to 83.9 percent. That hardly counts as an expansion.

The second reason is that when I was campaigning in 2007, I felt that the majority of Kentuckians were against expanded gaming. It has become clear to me in the intervening years, however, that attitudes have changed. In fact, a recent Courier-Journal poll found that 87 percent of respondents were in favor of putting expanded gaming on the ballot. Those numbers are astonishing.

Third, and possibly the most irritating, is that surrounding states are taking advantage of Kentucky to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Citizens and politicians in Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and Ohio must have been laughing to themselves over the years as Kentucky failed to act, and Kentuckians continued to deposit hundreds of millions of dollars a year in their communities. We have built countless roads and schools in neighboring states, and we didn't even get so much as a thank you in return. Those states are no doubt hoping with all of their might that Kentucky continues down its path of inaction.

Finally, I failed to take into account the number of Kentucky jobs that would be created by passing an expanded gaming amendment. First and foremost, these facilities have to be built, which would immediately generate thousands of construction jobs. Then of course, they have to be maintained and operated, which creates jobs in everything from hotel management to truck drivers delivering supplies on a daily basis, from accountants and advertising workers to people working the casino floor itself. You also have to take into account the jobs created through additional tourism and convention business that casinos help attract. It is quite clear to me now that these are businesses with a large capacity to create jobs.

It is never easy to admit that you were wrong about such an important issue, but it is clear to me now that I was wrong about expanded gaming. If our state is to become competitive, we must keep the millions of dollars that leave Kentucky every year, and use that money to invest in our future. We must stop sending our jobs and resources across the border. We must recognize that expanded gaming is already here, and the time has come for us to actually benefit from that fact. We have debated long enough. The time is now to decide this issue once and for all.

Billy Harper is an executive board member of Kentucky Wins! and current CEO and president of Harper Industries, a Paducah-based construction company.

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