Sweeping surprise overhaul of horse racing, gambling regulation sails out of Senate

Published 11:56 am Wednesday, March 27, 2024

By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern


Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer’s late-breaking plan to form a new government corporation to oversee horse racing and charitable gaming is on the move in the Kentucky General Assembly.

With only a handful of days left to pass bills, Senate Bill 299, which began as a “shell” bill, was heard in a joint meeting of the Senate and House economic development committees Tuesday morning and won Senate approval in a 26-11 floor vote in the afternoon.

The bill would create the Kentucky Horse Racing and Gaming Corporation to replace the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and Department of Charitable Gaming — both of which are currently under the Public Protection Cabinet.

According to the committee substitute version of the bill, the corporation would oversee areas like live horse racing and sports wagering, as well as charitable gaming after July 2025.

The Horse Racing Commission would be abolished in July 2024 and its employees and responsibilities would be transferred to the corporation. The charitable gaming department would be abolished the following summer and its employees and responsibilities would move to the corporation.

Board members of the corporation would be appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation. Current board members of the commission and department would serve two-year terms on the corporation.

Thayer, of Georgetown, is the primary sponsor and has deep ties to the horse racing industry. He appeared in the committee alongside Republican House Speaker David Osborne, of Prospect.

“I think this would bring increased scrutiny, integrity and transparency to all legal forms of gaming in Kentucky,” he said.

Kentucky is the site of several renowned horse races, including the Kentucky Derby. Last year, sports betting was legalized in Kentucky.

Thayer previously filed a floor amendment to another Senate bill that would move the Horse Racing Commission to the Department of Agriculture. That bill proposes to move the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife to agriculture.

Before it became a sweeping change to oversee horse racing and gaming in Kentucky Tuesday, Senate Bill 299 was a shell bill, apparently minor legislation that lawmakers use to introduce major legislation well after the deadline for filing bills. The new version of the bill is more than 280 pages.

The Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee approved the bill Tuesday, while members of the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee only discussed the bill Tuesday.

The Senate almost took up Thayer’s bill shortly after it began debate Thursday afternoon. However, some senators objected that they still did not have the committee substitute on their computers. After it was uploaded, the Senate moved to other bills to give senators time to read over it before debating.

Democratic Caucus Chair Reggie Thomas, of Lexington, criticized how the bill moved ahead of the debate, but supported the legislation.

“The lack of transparency, the lack of sunshine, is something that should not be applauded,” he said.

Thomas’ fellow Democratic senators voted against the bill, along with five Republicans. Several opponents said they had been receiving concerned questions from charitable game sponsors that they could not answer.

After the Senate adjourned, Thayer said his intent to make changes in the Racing Commission had been public since he filed his original floor amendment, although the measure introduced Tuesday is far wider in scope than the earlier amendment.

When asked if he would ever like to serve as a board member for the new corporation, Thayer said such an appointment is not something he is considering at the moment. He previously announced he will not seek reelection, so this is his last legislative session.

“I hadn’t even thought about it. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t get an appointment by this governor,” Thayer said, referring to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

Thayer said he may run for another political office, such as governor, in the future. He also noted that he won’t be able to use his power as a Senate leader to influence any appointments to the new board because he will no longer be in the legislature.