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Kentucky Senate committee advances sports wagering bill

A brown American football on top of green grass
Football and other sports would be legal to gamble on in Kentucky if House Bill 551 is successful.

After several unsuccessful attempts in recent years, Kentucky lawmakers are closer than ever to expanding legal sports betting in the commonwealth.

The Kentucky Senate’s Licensing and Occupations Committee voted 9-1 in favor of House Bill 551, which allows horse racetrack associations to work with sports gambling companies. It’s the first time a Senate committee has approved a sports betting bill since 2019, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal ban on wagering.

Horse racing is the only sport Kentuckians can legally bet on. HB 551 would allow anyone 18 or older in the state to wager on professional and collegiate sports, as well as esports.

The bill passed the House 63-34 on Monday. It now needs to be read three times in the Senate before it can go up for a full vote.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is expected to sign the sports gambling bill, and there are only three days left for the Republican-led Senate to pass it. Because HB 551 would impact state revenue, it needs three-fifths of the 37 active senators, or 23 yes votes, to approve it during a non-budget legislative year.

Republican Rep. Michael Meredith of Oakland, the bill’s primary sponsor, presented it to the Senate committee Wednesday. He said it would create oversight into sports gambling that’s already happening in Kentucky.

“I think it's smart that we regulate this as a state and provide a structure where folks know what is happening in the marketplace, and know it's safe under the purview of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission,” Meredith said.

He also said state researchers determined that expanded sports betting could add up to $23 million in tax revenue for Kentucky each year. The bill would create a state-run gambling addiction resource using 2.5% of revenue, while the rest would go toward regulating sports betting and supporting the state pension fund.

Senate majority leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown pointed out during Wednesday’s meeting that most of Kentucky’s neighboring states currently offer broad sports betting. He voted yes, arguing that residents should be able to gamble if they choose.

“We can't stop people from doing things that are bad for them. There are a lot of behaviors out there that, done in excess, are bad for people. But my constituents want this. The people of Kentucky want this,” Thayer said.

A 2022 survey by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies that found 65% of Kentuckians support expanding sports betting and about half said they have bet on a sports event.

Republican Sen. Donald Douglas of Nicholasville voted yes. He said he was interested in exploring potential concerns over sports betting.

“Letting it out of committee and allowing it to have more discussion would be a good thing for us here in the commonwealth,” Douglas said.

Several Kentucky-based groups oppose widening sports wagering, including conservative groups such as the Commonwealth Policy Center and the Family Foundation.

David Walls, executive director of the Family Foundation, told the committee that expanding sports gambling would financially harm families.

“These social costs are only amplified when we're talking about online sports and video game betting being made on already highly addictive cell phones. Online sports betting puts casinos in the pockets of millions,” Walls said.

Walls added that the bill would undo the progress a Senate committee made Tuesday approving a bill to ban unregulated slot-like machines in Kentucky.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.