Sports betting to be legalized in KY after Senate votes, Beshear says he’ll sign

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After a long and dramatic path through the Kentucky legislative session, a bill that would legalize sports betting got final passage right at the buzzer.

The Kentucky Senate passed the bill 25-11, with all seven Democrats joining a slim majority of Republicans to clear the 23 votes needed to cross the 60% threshold required to pass a taxation bill during a non-budget session.

After the House passed the bill for several years, the membership of the Senate finally warmed to the idea. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has long been an advocate for the bill.

“We are a sports-crazy state. We love our sports in the commonwealth, and people want to be able to make a choice of their own free will to make a wager on a sports event,” Thayer said.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland.

Meredith said the impetus for the bill was recognizing that sports betting, a practice that has become more popular with the proliferation of major companies like DraftKings, is already taking place in Kentucky but that it ought to become legal and regulated.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, a longtime advocate for sports betting legalization, plans to sign the bill on Friday morning, according to Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley.

Several surveys have indicated that the effort has statewide approval among Kentucky voters.

Social conservative groups like The Family Foundation have presented against the bill various times during multiple legislative sessions.

The bill provides a boost to Kentucky’s horse industry, which has drawn some fire from opponents this session and in previous sessions for strengthening their market share over Kentucky gambling.

Under HB 551, sports betting would be taxed 9.75% at horse racing facilities and 14.25% online. The bill states that sports betting would be regulated by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHC) “which has demonstrated a long and successful history of regulating wagering.”

According to a fiscal note to the bill provided by the Legislative Research Commission, the bill is projected to bring in almost $23 million per year once fully implemented. That’s a small amount compared to the state’s $14.7 billion General Fund.

The act goes into effect 90 days after sine die, which is June 28. From there, KHC has six months under the bill to “promulgate administrative regulations to establish a fully functioning sports wagering system.” That means the system could be established any time between the end of summer and Dec. 28.

For and against

Passage of the bill came as something of a surprise to some observers, as advocates for the bill said that 23 votes in the Senate weren’t yet firmed up as recently as Wednesday night.

The Senate’s highest officer, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, ended up supporting the bill. Stivers had previously expressed ambivalence on the topic.

“I felt it was time because the votes eventually are going to be there, be it now or next year, to pass this,” Stivers said. “There was more than enough votes in this chamber to pass the bill (eventually), so go ahead and do it now and take it off of the table.”

Thayer called Stivers’ support, which wasn’t apparent until today, “seminal.”

“Getting Senate President Stivers to vote yes was a seminal moment for sports betting, and everybody who’s in favor of the bill should be grateful to him because it’s always been challenging to pass a bill like that, with his previous position of public ambivalence. Him becoming a yes vote, I think sent a message to some members,” Thayer said.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, has long been an opponent of expanded gambling and spoke at length against the bill on the floor.

“There will be people hurt by this. There will be people who can’t afford to bet who will bet anyway,” Westerfield said. “How much money do people in Kentucky have to lose before we gain? Whether it’s $23 million or $60 million, or whatever other figure it might be, how many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars will people lose?”

David Walls, executive director of the Christian social conservative group The Family Foundation, said that the bill was a “lose-lose” for Kentuckians due to its impact on families.

“After recently voting to ensure every gas-station across Kentucky does not become a mini-casino, it is extremely troubling that the General Assembly has now voted to turn every cell phone in Kentucky into a digital casino that kids will inevitably have access to,” Walls wrote. “Kentuckians surely did not elect pro-family majorities in the General Assembly to pass Governor Beshear’s legislative agenda to expand predatory gambling and legalize “medical” marijuana. Kentuckians deserve better from their elected leaders.”