LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway said Thursday he is willing to campaign for expanded gambling as a way to raise revenue for essential state programs, and hasn't given up on getting the long-stymied proposal through Kentucky's General Assembly.
Conway, the state's attorney general, pointed to preschools and post-secondary education as two potential beneficiaries of revenue generated by legalizing casino-style gambling in an era of lean state budgets.
Current Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, in his second term, has been an outspoken supporter of allowing casino-style gambling in Kentucky, but efforts to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide have been thwarted in the politically divided legislature.
"It's a potential for new revenue," Conway said in an interview after speaking to a group of local officials from across Kentucky. "It's something that I want to talk to the people of Kentucky about, and I think ought to be on the ballot."
Republican James Comer, another potential candidate for governor in 2015, later said he too supports putting the issue on the ballot.
"It's clear to me, traveling the state, the majority of people want to vote on it," Comer said in an interview after speaking to the same group. "It's an issue that's haunted Republicans for the last two governor's races."
But Comer, the state's agriculture commissioner, said he doesn't plan to stress the issue if he enters the campaign.
"I don't want the governor's race to be about expanded gaming," he said. "We need to focus on other issues."
Conway acknowledged the moral concerns surrounding the gambling issue in this Bible-Belt state, but said Kentucky is already home to pari-mutuel wagering, a lottery, and charitable gaming. Meanwhile, potential revenue is siphoned away as Kentuckians go to casinos in neighboring states, he said.
"We have all the ills of it but none of the benefits of it," Conway said.
He held out hope of bringing up the gambling issue in the legislature, including the GOP-led state Senate. Conway said that Senate President Robert Stivers is "fair-minded" and willing to talk to him about issues.
"I think politically, there's an opportunity to at least get a vote on this in the Senate," Conway said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, another potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate, recently said the prospects for expanded gambling were damaged by Churchill Downs' contributions to a political action committee working to elect conservatives to the legislature.
Meanwhile, Comer used part of his speech Thursday to promote right-to-work legislation as a way to improve Kentucky's competitiveness in attracting jobs.
"It sends a signal to manufacturing that we're serious: This is a state that's focused on having a business-friendly environment," he said.
Kentucky's last GOP governor, Ernie Fletcher, failed in his push for legislation that would let Kentucky workers opt out of union representation.
Prospects for the proposal would improve if Republicans win control of the state House this fall, which would consolidate their control of the legislature. Comer suggested a compromise if Democrats retain power in the House — giving cities the option to adopt their own right-to-work ordinances.
Comer also called for a review of state incentives for job-creating projects. He said incentives should only be given to companies that pay good wages.
"We give incentives in Kentucky to businesses that don't pay living wages," he said.