Politics & Government

Bill to legalize sports betting passes Kentucky House panel, but still faces long odds

Supreme Court lets states legalize sports betting in historic 6-3 decision

With a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that legalizing sports betting should be left up to each state.
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With a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that legalizing sports betting should be left up to each state.

A bill to legalize and tax sports betting in Kentucky and devote much of the estimated tens of millions of dollars in revenue to public pensions flew out of a House committee on Wednesday. But it faces an uncertain future in the full House, where — as a revenue measure — it needs 60 out of 100 votes to pass.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go,” said the sponsor, Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger. “Right now we have to work on talking to other members. I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting it passed if everyone votes their conscience. There’s a lot of folks in my party who believe in freedom, and there’s a lot of folks on the Democrats’ side who ran on finding (pension) funding first.”

Although Kentucky has a long tradition of betting on horse races as well as a state-run lottery, most other forms of gambling are illegal. However, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that had largely outlawed sports betting outside of Nevada. Since then, seven states have legalized gambling on sporting events, including West Virginia. Other states are weighing their own plans.

House Bill 175 would let Kentuckians gamble on sports legally at an approved location — one of the state-licensed horse racetracks or the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta — or on an app for which they registered in person at an approved location, to prove their identities and that they are adults. Online poker and fantasy sports contests also would be regulated by different state agencies.

Most revenue collected through taxes and licensing fees would go to the state’s “permanent” pension fund, used to pay down Kentucky’s $37 billion unfunded pension liability. A small sum would be set aside for a gambling addiction treatment program.

The House Committee on Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations voted 14-to-0, with one “pass” vote, to approve the bill and send it to the House floor. Several committee members said Kentuckians already gamble, so the state may as well regulate the practice and collect some revenue from it.

“You can agree or disagree with gaming — gambling — but it already exists,” said Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville. “I live in Louisville. People who like to throw dice and play cards and pull a slot machine already do it.”

John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.