Kentucky Senate Approves Legal Betting, Sends Bill To Governor

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The Kentucky General Assembly Thursday evening became the first in the U.S. in 2023 to approve a legal sports betting bill when the Senate voted, 25-12, to send a digital wagering bill to Gov. Andy Beshear for his signature. The vote was quick and decisive and capped a five-year effort spearheaded by former Rep. Aaron Koenig, who lost his re-election bid last November but was present.

The Senate voted on legal wagering on the final day of the 2023 session, and not before bill sponsor Rep. Michael Meredith knew that he had the votes in place for passage. The House of Representatives approved sports betting, 63-34, on March 13, and since then HB 551 has been making a steady march through the Senate.

Should Beshear sign the bill, Kentucky could have up to 27 digital platforms tied to nine horse racing tracks and would require in-person registration for the first 12 months. In-person wagering would also be allowed, and each track could have one brick-and-mortar sportsbook.

While the Senate was passing sports betting, its peers in the House legalized access to medical marijuana for those who have a qualifying condition. According to the bill, which originated in the Senate, the state’s medical marijuana program won’t be available until 2025.

Reasonable tax, betting on colleges OK

Sports wagering would be taxed at 14.25% of adjusted gross revenue in Kentucky. Betting on college and professional teams, esports, and the Olympics would be allowed. The legislation would make the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission the regulator.

The legal age for wagering would be 18, which is consistent with the legal age for lottery and horse betting in the state but a departure from the norm across the U.S., as most of the 35-plus legal jurisdictions have set the age at 21.

The bill is not without detractors, including Sen. Whitney Westerfield, who implored his peers to vote no while sharing a story about a family in his district that “doesn’t have a pot to pee in, who can’t provide a pair of shoes that match or crayons that aren’t broken and being carried around in a Dollar Store plastic bag” but still “brags about going to the casino in Oak Grove.” Kentucky does not have legal casinos, but did legalize historical horse racing parlors several years ago.

“Let other states do it,” Westerfield said. “I’m in one of those bordering counties … and I know people are going to Tennessee. Let ’em. If you bring it here, there will be more families doing it here.”

As a counterpoint, Sen. Karen Berg, who voted “yes,” said, “I don’t feel that I was elected to be the morality police.”

Sen. Brandon Smith, who had voted against legal wagering in previous sessions but voted “yes” this time around, said, “It’s sports betting, not gambling. There’s a scripture that talks about money being the root of all evil, but it’s not the money that is the root of all evil, it’s the love of it. It’s not gambling that’s evil, it’s the love of it, but this is not gambling.

“I can’t take responsibility for everybody in this state for wagering.”

2.5% of tax revenue set for RG/PG

HB 551 sets aside 2.5% of tax revenue for responsible gambling and problem gambling programs. In introducing the bill, Meredith said estimates show that the state of Kentucky will take in $23 million in tax revenue, which means about $575,000 would be earmarked for education and prevention programs, hotlines, and other programs.

Six of Kentucky’s seven border states already have legal sports betting. Missouri is the only one without legal wagering, and the state Senate there is poised to consider an Assembly bill next week. All of the six other states offer digital wagering, including Ohio, which was the latest to go live when operators launched on Jan. 1.


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