Sports gambling bill crosses the finish line

Published 10:41 am Tuesday, April 4, 2023

BY LIAM NIEMEYER

Kentucky Lantern

A bill to legalize sports betting in Kentucky overcame a hurdle that’s stopped it in the past with the Kentucky Senate approving the measurel in the final hours of this year’s legislative session.

The bill has full passage from the GOP-controlled Kentucky legislature and would just need to be signed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has previously signaled support for such legislation.

House Bill 551’s fate was uncertain in the Senate after it won bipartisan passage in the House by a 63-34 vote. The bill needed 60 votes in that chamber given that Kentucky statutes require bills raising revenue in an odd-numbered year to have the approval of three-fifths of the body.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, a supporter of the bill, told reporters multiple times leading up to the Thursday evening Senate vote that he didn’t believe it had the votes for passage but that the vote count was close. The House had approved a sports gambling bill last year, but it didn’t receive a vote on the Senate floor.

HB 551 ultimately won passage in the Senate by a vote of 25-12, reaching the required three-fifths voting threshold.

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, said he was a surprising “yes” vote on the bill in that he was personally against legalizing sports betting but that he’s listened to constituents in his newly-drawn district.

“I’ve made a pretty hard case against this bill at home,” Smith said. “But I will tell you I’ve come up short. The voters of my new district want to have this freedom.”

Those opposing the legislation, which included several Republicans, made various arguments against the bill ranging from whether it would hurt Kentuckians with gambling addiction or concerns how it would affect college sports in Kentucky.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, before voting “no” said any people would be making bets on sports through their smartphones and that the money spent on sports betting could better be spent elsewhere.

“Whatever money is spent on that app gambling on whatever sport you want to bet on is money that’s not spent in a church offering plate. It’s not spent on a United Way campaign, it’s not spent in a nonprofit that needs you,” Westerfield said.

Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, in voting “yes” said she understood the arguments Westerfield was making but that there were measures in the bill to help people who have problems with gambling.

“I don’t feel that I was elected to be the morality police,” Berg said.  As long as they’re not hurting anybody else, and we do have provisions in this bill that will put aside money to help people who do have a problem with addiction.”

Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, added an amendment to the bill in the House that will dedicate about 2.5% of the generated annual tax revenue from sports betting to go toward addressing gambling addiction. Meredith has previously said the legislation is anticipated to bring in $23 million annually to the state.