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Kentucky sports betting bill: Challenges still ahead in legislature

31st January, 11:35

Two weeks after clearing committee like a locomotive, a bill that would bring legalized sports betting to Kentucky appears to be running short on steam.

Approved 18-0 by the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee on Jan. 15, House Bill 137 has yet to be put to a vote by the lower chamber of the state legislature. Though Rep. Al Gentry (D-Louisville), a co-sponsor, says enough votes are in place to pass the bill in the house, but "the senate," he says, "is a different story."

Citing his organization's informal polling, Family Foundation spokesman Martin Cothran issued a press release Wednesday declaring the bill to be "in trouble."

It is, at the least, in escalating doubt.

Democrat Andy Beshear's victory over incumbent Matt Bevin has given Kentucky's sports betting advocates a new ally in the governor's office, but old objections continue to impede the bill's passage on moral, religious, social, political and Constitutional grounds. Moreover, Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester), admittedly "ambivalent" about the bill, remains dubious of its potential to generate significant revenue for the state.

Asked for his head count of supporters, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer said he had not taken one, "and if I did, I wouldn't tell you."

"It's not in trouble," said the bill's author, Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger). "(But) it's controversial so there are extra hurdles to get by."

Thayer is a former racetrack executive. House Speaker David Osborne is a horse owner and breeder who has identified himself as a Churchill Downs stockholder on state ethics forms. Yet despite thoroughbred racing's impact and influence in the state, and the windfall sports betting could mean for licensees (limited to racetracks and Kentucky Speedway), the two Republican leaders have encountered more enthusiasm from state Democrats than from members of their own party.

More: Could Kentucky see sports betting in the near future? The odds are improving

Also: Kentucky sports betting bill passes out of House committee by unanimous vote

"It would be unusual for the leadership of a chamber to buck its own rank and file," Cothran said.

It will be interesting to see how the politicians proceed. As late as Thursday afternoon, Gentry said a house vote was possible by the end of the week, provided Republican leadership could agree on a course of action. Minutes later, via text message, Koenig said, "probably not this week."

"The argument they're having within the Republican caucuses (is): 'If we don't think we've got the votes (in the senate), then don't send it over there,'" Gentry said. "We wanted to not just pass this thing with 51 votes (a simple majority). We'd like to get 60 votes or something like that to shoot it over there with some momentum.

"(But) The way this stuff works, the longer these bills sit, the less likely they are to move. In general, with something that sits a long time, it just gives more reason for people to nit-pick and present reasons why not to vote for something."

The most persuasive and persistent argument in favor of legalizing sports betting in Kentucky is that it already exists in neighboring states; that residents already partake through offshore accounts, illegal bookmakers or by crossing borders to make their wagers; and that the state reaps none of the potential tax revenues from regulating a pervasive form of gambling.

More from Frankfort: In move that could affect Louisville, Senate committee passes Kentucky 'sanctuary' ban

On Politics: Is the proposed Kentucky voter ID law all about Mitch McConnell's election?

"My stance has always been that this is a common-sense bill," Gentry said. "It's all about retaining discretionary spending dollars that are leaving our borders from Kentuckians ...

"We have the activity already here. We just don't get any revenues off of it. If we can get revenues off of it, we can treat the small percentage that don't handle it very well more effectively."

The most convincing counter-argument is that the state that authorizes expanded gambling to generate more revenue imposes a regressive tax and addictive risk on its citizens. This is most often an act of desperation or cynicism, and sometimes both. It is not, therefore, a step to be taken lightly.

Extra hurdles were to be expected. Whether they can be cleared is a betting proposition.