Adam Koenig, a Republican member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, has spearheaded efforts to legalize sports betting in the Bluegrass State in recent years. He’s done so without much luck.
House Bill 241, which was introduced on Jan. 9, 2021, would’ve legalized sports betting in the state, but it was one of a handful of bills that died in committee this year. Koenig and others also pushed for legal sports wagering in 2019 and 2020.
There’s bipartisan support for legal sports betting, including from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, but Koenig has struggled to get all of his fellow Republicans on board. A lack of widespread Republican support remains the critical holdup to allowing sports wagering in the state.
Other highlights from Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear’s State of the Commonwealth:
“Speaking of laws that unduly restrict us from growth and innovation… It is time to legalize medical marijuana, pass sports betting, and save historic horse racing.”
— Chad Hedrick (@ChadHedrickWKYT) January 8, 2021
“We’re not exactly a trailblazing state when it comes to new policy changes in the world,” Koenig said. “We have a large rural population and, therefore, many rural legislators who are reluctant to poke the bear.”
While Koenig’s recent efforts won’t lead to legal mobile betting apps or retail sports wagering in 2021, he’s holding out hope that 2022 could be the year Kentucky joins its neighbors in allowing sports betting. Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, and Indiana all offer legal sports betting options.
“After our vote on historical horse racing earlier this year and our success at passing it, I think there’s more optimism that it might have a shot,” Koenig said.
Potential legalization in 2022
Kentucky legalized historical horse racing — a form of betting that allows customers to wager on old horse races via slot-like terminals — in February. The legislation helped reverse the effects of the 2020 Kentucky Supreme Court decision that HHR was not a form of “parimutuel” betting.
The February result was a win for Kentucky’s horse racing industry. The revenue generated from HHR helps keep tracks open and allows races to have bigger purses, which in turn brings some of the top horses to Kentucky to race.
Churchill Downs plans to open a historical horse racing parlor in downtown Louisville with about 500 HHR machines. It’s expected to open in 2023, per a report from the Associated Press. About 100 permanent jobs will be created by the new parlor.
Churchill Downs is planning to open a historical horse racing parlor with 500 machines in downtown Louisville. Jill Dorson on what this means for legal sports betting in Kentucky: https://t.co/KXmfpcdz43 pic.twitter.com/3WcDhE4X0d
— TN Bets (@TN_Bets) October 4, 2021
Koenig believes that HHR legalization, which was questioned and criticized by some conservative groups and lawmakers, could begin to lay the groundwork for legalizing sports wagering.
“Given what we did this year with historical horse racing, I think there will be some who realize that they’re not going to ruin their political career,” Koenig said. “It may make going to church the first couple Sundays a little uncomfortable, and then life will continue.”
Also working in Koenig’s favor is the length of the Kentucky legislative session in 2022. In the Bluegrass State, the legislative session lasts 30 days during odd-numbered years. In even-numbered years, the session spans 60 days. A longer legislative session makes it easier to debate and pass bills.
Disagreement about sports gambling’s impact
Groups like the Family Foundation of Kentucky have been outspoken about the potential negative effects of widespread gambling.
“The vulnerable will be destroyed,” the Family Foundation’s website reads. “There will be some people whose lives will be totally destroyed — marriage-damaging financial stress, alcoholism, drug use, child neglect and abuse, spouse neglect and abuse, divorce, depression, suicide, embezzlement, imprisonment, and crime.”
Koenig disagrees with those assessments and cites potential tax revenue from sports betting as something that could greatly help those in the state.
“There’s no place that couldn’t use more revenue, especially a source that doesn’t raise taxes,” Koenig said. “We have the worst-funded pension system in America. We have a need that I’ve been talking about and others have too, that we can’t keep people. Just like any other business, we need to pay our people more. The time has come. They haven’t gotten a raise, many of them, in over a decade because of our financial situation. This could go to help that.”
Even though Koenig feels some optimism about legalizing sports betting in 2022, he knows there’s still skepticism from Kentucky legislators guided by “moral and political considerations.”
Koenig plans to sponsor a bill at the beginning of the 2022 legislative session that would be geared toward legalizing mobile and retail sports wagering. The contents of that bill should be similar to past proposals.
HB 241 included language to allow both mobile and retail sports wagering, in addition to online poker and daily fantasy sports. HB 241 also would’ve allowed for wagering on both professional and collegiate sports. The bill would have named the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission as the independent agency that would regulate sports betting in the state.
“I’m thinking about a few small changes, but it’ll be largely the same,” Koenig said.
The hiccup remains getting more Republicans on board.
“I’m gonna keep going until it gets done,” Koenig said. “I’ve told folks that even if they don’t like me and they don’t like my bills, they might as well just pass it because I’m not leaving until I get it done.”