Ending rocky road through legislature, ‘gray machines’ ban gets final passage

Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

It was dead, then it was revived, and now a ban on so-called ‘gray machines’ is headed off to Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk.

House Bill 594, from Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Lexington, fell victim earlier in the session to a motion to table in the House, but was later taken off the table and passed in that chamber.

Its passage in the Senate was much more swift.

On Tuesday, HB 594 sailed through committee in the morning and easily passed the Senate in a 29-6 floor vote.

That marks the end of the ban’s legislative journey, which has been incredibly expensive. Organizations on both sides broke records for the month of January, topping $300,000 collectively. Horse industry-backed Kentuckians Against Illegal Gambling (KAIG) spent $286,623 in January and February on advertising in support of HB 594 while the ‘gray machines’ industry counterpart has yet to report its February numbers.

Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, carried the bill in the Senate before it got final passage.

Wilson highlighted the fact that he sees House Bill 594 as an “anti-gambling” bill. One criticism of the bill forwarded by industry partners who benefit from the proliferation of ‘gray machines’ is that banning the slot-like machines benefits the horse industry, which recently pushed hard to legalize its own slot-like machines featured in Historical Horse Racing (HHR) facilities across the state.

Wilson noted that he was against those machines as well in a slim 22-15 passage previously.

But some legislators expressed conflict, similar to that expressed by many House members during their contentious battle over the legislation, over the fact that the legislature had legalized HHR but opted to ban the ‘gray machines.’

“I sure wish the passion for stopping these machines had been here two years ago… It’s important for me to note, at least for the historical record, the hypocrisy in the switching of the positions here between what we did just two short years ago and (now). We’re being wildly inconsistent,” Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, said.

The vast majority of Republicans in the Senate, including Westerfield, as well as all Democrats voted in support of House Bill 594. Only six in the 31-member Senate GOP caucus voted “no.”

Senate Minority Whip David Yates, D-Louisville, said that he, like Westerfield, was conflicted. He ultimately voted yes, though, framing his vote as the lesser of two bad choices.

The issue spawned some side controversies in the House.

Sponsor representative Timoney was recently the subject of an anti-trans ad campaign against him, based on his vote against a bill banning transgender girls from girls sports, the timing of which led some to believe that the pushback could be coming from the ‘gray machines’ side.

Recent Herald-Leader reporting found that the industry’s two biggest companies have hired the current and former House GOP whip as legal counsel, an important role for gauging support of the House Republican caucus. Current House GOP Whip Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, said that there was no ethical problem with him advocating on the bill while being employed by ‘gray machine’ company Prominent Technologies, citing an informal advisory opinion he received to that effect from the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

The industry expressed disappointment at the chamber’s conclusion.

“Once again, hypocrisy has won the day in Frankfort. It’s clear that some lawmakers are committed to putting the requests of one constituent, Churchill Downs Inc., over the needs of thousands of their constituents who are relying on the income of legal skill games. We thank those lawmakers, in both chambers, who voted against HB594, standing up for Kentucky small businesses in the process,” Wes Jackson, president of the Kentucky Merchants & Amusement Coalition (KY MAC), said.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear appears likely to support HB 594. He’s expressed disapproval of the machines, calling them “the only form of unregulated gaming in Kentucky.”