By ROGER ALFORD
Associated Press Writer
DANVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Gov. Ernie Fletcher, speaking Friday in the central Kentucky town where the state constitution was drafted, harshly criticized his Democratic challenger for wanting to change the historic document to legalize casinos.
"He wants to make sure your kids are blackjack dealers and they can only count to 21," Fletcher said referring to Lexington lawyer Steve Beshear, the Democrat who is running against him for Kentucky's top job in state government. "He doesn't have a clue if he thinks casino gambling is going to build a future."
Beshear, who built his primary election campaign around his support for casinos, says taxes from legalized gambling could help fund education, health care, economic development and other initiatives. He said Kentuckians already spend huge amounts at casinos over the state line in Indiana and Illinois.
Opening the state to casinos would require amending the state's constitution, which can be done only if voters consent by approving a ballot referendum.
"People have a right to vote on that issue," Beshear said. "We want to give people a right to vote because we trust Kentuckians on that issue."
But Beshear said there was a different constitutional issue he wanted to raise - one involving the oath officeholders take swearing to uphold the law.
"It's time that the word 'illegal' no longer describes the actions of our governor," Beshear said.
The candidates spoke on a stage across the street from the Constitution Square State Historic Site where Kentucky's Constitution was drafted and signed in 1792.
Fletcher is framing the election as a referendum on casinos. He says Kentuckians who don't want casinos should vote for him, and that those who do should support Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Campaigning across the state on a "No Casinos" tour, Fletcher says gambling would contribute to bankruptcies, divorce and crime. He said Kentuckians would have to lose $1.5 billion at casinos to generate the $500 million a year in additional state revenue that Beshear is predicting.
Fletcher had originally said he would not oppose efforts to put such a measure on the ballot, but abruptly changed his stance after the primary, citing his personal opposition to gambling. He says he'll fight any effort to change the constitution.
Fletcher, an ordained Baptist minister, was the fresh face voters wanted four years ago when he swept into the Kentucky governor's office on the promise that he would "clean up the mess in Frankfort."
Soon after taking office in 2003, a special grand jury began investigating a complaint that Fletcher's administration had violated state hiring laws in a scheme to reward political supporters with state jobs.
Fletcher and at least 14 of his aides and associates were indicted. Fletcher issued pardons for everyone except himself. His lawyers worked out a deal with prosecutors to have the charges against him dropped.
Now Fletcher is facing a stiff challenge from Beshear who has been hammering away at the Republican administration's hiring scandal. In one of his television ads, Beshear stands in front of the state Capitol, gestures toward the domed building, and promises "to finally clean this place up."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)