A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill legalizing sports wagering gains approval in House committee; ‘gray machines’ ban to Senate

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

Legislation that would legalize sports wagering in Kentucky, which has been attempted in the past without success, won unanimous approval from a House committee on Wednesday.

Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, the primary sponsor of HB 551, appeared before the House Licensing, Occupations, and Administrative Regulations Committee, along Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville, one of 14 co-sponsors for the measure.

Meredith testified that 36 states and the District of Columbia allow sports wagering, and that Kentuckians spend $1 billion a year on illegal, unregulated gambling. “I’m talking about taking an industry that exists in the shadows, legitimizing it, legalizing it, and regulating it to protect consumers.”

Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland (right) the main sponsor of a sports wagering bill, along with Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville, one of the co-sponsors, testify to a House committee on Wednesday. (Photo by Tom Latek, Kentucky Today)

He pointed out that it is not a huge amount of money that the state would receive through licensing and other fees. “It’s roughly $23 million, but that’s $23 million that’s either not being given to any government right now, or being given to one of our border states.”

Meredith noted that Missouri is the only neighboring state that doesn’t allow sports wagering, and added, “This is not a product that’s not already happening in the marketplace. IT’s just happening in an illegal and unregulated fashion.”

Under the bill, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission would oversee sports wagering, and after the commission’s expenses, the remaining revenue would go to help shore up the state’s public pension system.

David Walls, executive director of the Family Foundation, spoke against the bill.

“Predatory gambling, especially in the expansive form that’s been considered, is not a victimless form of entertainment or competition. It’s a form of financial fraud that sees the government partner with wealthy gambling interests to the harm of its own citizens.”

“This type of predatory gambling is designed to prey on human weakness, with the government colluding with gambling interests to exploit our fellow Kentuckians.”

The committee approved the bill on a 20-0 vote and it now heads to the House floor.

“I am disappointed that the House committee advanced this sports betting bill so easily and with so little consideration of the harm that expanded gambling will inflict on Kentuckians,” said KBC Executive Director Todd Gray. “The sports gambling business wants to get a foothold in our commonwealth, and legislators should think long and hard before giving state sanction to this predatory industry. Kentucky Baptists pray that wiser heads will prevail, and this bill fails going forward.”

Since HB 551 has had only one of the required three readings, it likely cannot be taken up until Thursday.

‘Gray machines’ ban goes to Senate

A bill that would ban so-called gray machines in Kentucky, which had been tabled in the House last Friday, was voted to be taken off the table and passed by the chamber on Wednesday.

There was no debate on the motion to take the bill off the table, and there was little discussion on the approval vote.

Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies, was the only member who commented. He told his colleagues, “I voted yes to House Bill 594, because the gray machines are the machines that are taking the money of my people back in the 84th District. They don’t drive to Churchill Downs, but they are spending their money at the local businesses where these gray machines are.”

Although Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Lexington, is the sponsor of the measure, House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, presented the bill, following an hour long caucus meeting.

The measure passed 64-32.

Following the vote, Mark Guilfoyle, executive director of Kentuckians Against Illegal Gambling, issued a statement in which he said:

“We applaud the Kentucky House of Representatives for quickly reconsidering and passing House Bill 594 to ban illegal gray machines. This was the right decision to protect Kentucky’s future. We urge the Senate to quickly follow suit and stop the massive proliferation of illegal gray machine gambling that is threatening the safety of Kentucky families and communities. Passing HB 594 is the only certain and viable option to prevent every restaurant, gas station and convenience store in the Commonwealth from becoming a mini casino— bringing robberies, underage gambling, and violent crime to our communities.”

However, Wes Jackson, president of Kentucky Merchants and Amusement Coalition, expressed disappointment:

“It’s unfortunate that even after so many Kentucky small business owners contacted their legislators about the benefits of skill games, and even after it became clear that many House members were not in favor of voting on this legislation last week, that several lawmakers decided to call HB594 for a vote and pass it today. It’s no secret that this is a Churchill Downs-backed bill. While they seek to ban a few skill games that are helping struggling small businesses, they simultaneously pushed a bill that gives the tracks exclusive rights to sports wagering – which, ironically, passed in committee today.  We are hopeful that our supporters in the Senate will put this dangerous ban bill to rest, putting the needs of actual Kentuckians, not the profits of big business, first.”

The bill now heads to the Senate.

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