Bill to legalize sports betting in KY moves. What are the actual odds?

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House Bill 551 sponsor Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, addresses questions from reporters on Wednesday.

House Bill 551 sponsor Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, addresses questions from reporters on Wednesday.

For the second consecutive year, a House committee has moved forward on a bill to legalize sports betting in Kentucky.

House Bill 551 from Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, which would legalize the practice for adult Kentuckians, sailed through the House Licensing & Occupations committee on Wednesday morning.

This is a familiar scene. Last year, former state representative Adam Koenig shepherded a similar bill through the House, but it never received a committee hearing in the Senate.

Meredith said he thinks this will be the year.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot of momentum. I’m very optimistic going into the (House) floor vote and going into the Senate vote,” Meredith said.

There’s one important factor working against those odds, though: the fact that it’s a taxation bill. Because HB 551 establishes a new tax, it has to meet a 60% threshold of “yes” votes to pass in both chambers. Meredith said he feels confident that those votes will be there in the House – a similar bill passed last year 58-30, with several legislators sitting out – but that it’s still up in the air in the Senate.

In the 38-member Senate, that means the measure needs 23 votes to pass.

“I feel pretty confident about that, but we’re probably within a vote or two of where we need to be,” Meredith said.

He added that he expects a House floor vote on the bill early next week.

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 “which has demonstrated a long and successful history of regulating wagering.”

Estimated annual revenue that would come into the state as of 2019 was $22.5 million, a small amount compared to the state’s $14.7 billion General Fund.

David Walls, executive director of the socially conservative Family Foundation, showed up to testify against the bill on the grounds that expanded gaming comes with high “social costs.” He said the measure will ruin families and that it threatens the moral fabric of the state.

It also impacts children, Walls said.

“Despite any attempts to protect children from this highly addictive form of gambling, commercialized sports betting harms children and radically changes the way that they perceive sports. The high frequency of deceptive ads by sports gambling operators serves to normalize gambling for children, leading kids to believe that gambling is central to the playing and watching sports,” Walls said.

House Licensing & Occupations Chair Matthew Koch, R-Paris, noted the foundation’s absence from testifying against a bill to ban so-called ‘gray machines’ from the state.

“We missed you last week when we had another very large gambling bill on the table,” Koch said.

The Family Foundation, Walls said, is “neutral” on the bill from Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Lexington.

Meredith said that he understands moral objections to gambling, but that legislators need to face the reality of its existence.

“I can’t debate their moral objections or their religious convictions, but the reality is we know there’s a ton of this activity already going on in the state,” Meredith said. “There’s a ton of residents who are just crossing the borders to place their bets. We just need to bring this home and regulate it properly.”

In the Senate, Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has been a strong advocate while Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has remained ambivalent on the issue.

Meredith said that he thinks a majority of the 31-member Senate Republican caucus supports the bill, but reiterated that he isn’t exactly certain if the full 23 votes needed to pass the full Senate are there.

Sports betting legalization is an issue strongly supported by Gov. Andy Beshear, and some Republicans have wondered whether passing such a bill would hand the Democratic governor a legislative “win” when most of the predominantly-GOP legislature wants to see Beshear lose his re-election bid this year.

This story was originally published March 8, 2023, 11:48 AM.

Austin Horn is a politics reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He previously worked for the Frankfort State Journal and National Public Radio. Horn has roots in both Woodford and Martin Counties.

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