The time has come for the Kentucky Senate to decide whether sports betting should be legal in the commonwealth.
After the end of a 10-day veto period on Monday, the Kentucky legislature returns to session for two final days Wednesday and Thursday. It is unclear, however, whether the bill that would legalize sports betting, online poker, and daily fantasy sports will get a floor vote in the Senate.
“There’s a chance,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican, said of potential action on a trio of gambling bills addressing sports betting, problem gaming funding, and a ban on unregulated “gray” machines. “I try to resist being a morning-line oddsmaker on what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen.”
Although all three bills moved out of the House earlier in the session — along with a parimutuel tax bill that also essentially eliminated the practice of “breakage,” which was passed by the Senate and signed into law Friday by Gov. Andy Beshear — a successful path through the Senate has always been in question for the sports betting legislation. That was emphasized last week in comments by Senate President Robert Stivers.
Stivers said he was “ambivalent” toward the revenue aspects of HB 606, the sports betting bill.
“When you think about the bourbon industry, horse racing in and of itself, adventure tourism, our parks, our horse farms, things of that nature, this is not as significant an economic generator,” Stivers said.
On sports betting, Senate President Robert Stivers says "it creates no energy with me" and doubts there's a lot of support for it among Senate Republicans.
"I think it's much to do about nothing, basically," he said.https://t.co/dRUKDt8Kwn
— Joe Ragusa (@JoeRagusa) March 18, 2022
The issue could come to a head Thursday, as Thayer said the General Assembly will use much of Wednesday to address veto overrides and other matters. He also said he expects both floor sessions to go late into the night.
Does sports betting have the votes?
The question in the Senate, as with most political matters, comes down to the votes.
There are 38 senators, and 10 are widely acknowledged to be against any expanded gaming, including the sports betting bill. But what about the 28 others? The move to legalize sports betting is supported by Beshear, a Democrat, so it could get support from the eight Senate Democrats. That leaves 20 Republicans to swing a potential vote, and HB 606’s sponsor in the House, Republican Rep. Adam Koenig, has spent much of the veto period trying to convince them.
“There’s a lot of senators keeping their cards close to the vest,” Koenig said. “And I don’t blame them, because a lot can happen. If it was a secret ballot on the Senate floor, it would probably pass 28-10, but we don’t do votes in secret.”
Koenig said he views the gambling bills, which he once considered for an omnibus bill, as “a package” with “something for everyone,” which helped them win House approval. He noted, specifically, that the bill to ban gray machines did not pass until the sports betting bill got through.
GOP Senate President Robert Stivers gave a half hour presser today. He said HB 608 (gray machines ban) & HB 475 (constitutional amendment giving local govt more flexibility on taxes) have a "50/50" chance of passing next week. HB 606 sports betting? Technically possible but <50%.
— Joe Sonka 😐 (@joesonka) April 7, 2022
“I don’t know all the dynamics over there [in the Senate], but if they’re anything like the House, we had to pass sports betting before we got the gray machine bill to pass,” Koenig said. “There were some in the House who were ambivalent about the gray machine bill but really wanted sports betting, so they were unwilling to support the gray machine bill until we got sports betting.”
Sports betting is the topic du jour
What the week holds for Kentucky sports betting may be unclear, but the issue has definitely grabbed the public’s attention.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of the bill, citing a report Monday that said “GeoComply reported blocking more than 530,000 attempts from within Kentucky to access/place a wager in a state that has legal sports betting.” Keeneland and other horse racing organizations have also expressed support for the bill, while religious groups are ramping up opposition pressure.
This would be a great time for all @KentuckyBaptist to reach out to your @KYSenateGOP and @KYSenateDems to ask them to oppose HB 606 that would expand sports betting in KY. Please call the Legislative Message Line at 1-800-372-7181 or find your senator at https://t.co/iAy1sE96JZ pic.twitter.com/axFhTCRuK3
— KyBaptistConvention (@KentuckyBaptist) April 11, 2022
Thayer said Monday that the topic of sports betting gets brought up wherever he goes.
“I can’t go anywhere without being asked about sports betting — the grocery store, out to dinner, at the gym, at the Chamber of Commerce,” Thayer said. “The majority of the people who approach me want to know why we can’t pass sports betting.”
Breaking through the moral objection
That sentiment is in line with public polling in Kentucky, which shows bipartisan support for sports betting. Such support hasn’t translated to a smooth ride through the statehouse, as citizens and legislators can draw different lines on moral or religious grounds.
#MakeKY34: @repkoenig will be on @ESPN680 11:30a ET Thurs w @DanIssel44 & @MikePratt22 talking #sportsbetting. Tune in at https://t.co/7W3rdG2Lu9, ESPN app. Us this @KYChamber link to urge your senator to support HB 606. @KYAlGentry https://t.co/Dw4Y48RrcO pic.twitter.com/VQPTil24T4
— Jennie Rees (@TracksideJennie) April 7, 2022
“Sometimes polling doesn’t matter,” Thayer said. “I’m not for marijuana legalization, but I am for sports betting, and both have support in Kentucky. But that’s where I draw the line. Other people draw the lines in other places, and you have to respect that.”
Koenig has long worked off the theory that he can outlast his opponents on sports betting. He is optimistic that even if the bill does not get through the Senate this year, meaningful progress is being made.
“When I got to the legislature in 2007, there was 40 percent of the House that was an automatic ‘no’ — a reflexive ‘no’ — on anything alcohol,” said Koenig, who sponsored a bill in 2020 to loosen restrictions on shipping alcohol in the state. “That taboo is gone now, and I think gaming is in that same space as alcohol was 16 years ago.
“It took me four years to get [sports betting] through the House, and I sincerely hope this is the year in the Senate. If not, the year is coming.”
Election turnover could make a difference
And for those 10 senators who oppose any expanded gaming? Koenig says at least a few won’t be running for reelection in November, and odds are they will be replaced by a younger generation that will be more amenable to change in the gambling sphere.
“Elections can change outlooks,” he said.
Koenig also bristles at the contention of some opponents that the very existence of a bill to address problem gaming — which would create a fund of $50 million to tap for gambling addiction programs — is a reason to oppose expanded gaming.
“The part that boggles my mind is when people use the fact that we’re looking at problem gaming as a reason to not support sports betting,” Koenig said. “It’s idiotic. If we don’t approve sports betting, we still have, from last year, $6 billion in parimutuel wagering, $1.5 billion in lottery, and god knows what in charitable gaming. We need to fund” programs to combat problem gambling.
As committed as Koenig may be to continue the fight, however, the 2022 bill is out of his hands now that it’s in the other chamber. That brings back the initial question — what will the Senate do?
“I think it’s close,” Thayer said. “We’ll see what happens Wednesday and Thursday. Koenig is working hard, and advocates are working hard. We’re closer than we were a week ago, but we’re still probably not quite there.”