A legislative committee has unanimously approved a bill that would legalize sports betting in Kentucky, sending it to be considered by the state House of Representatives.
The bill would also regulate fantasy sports and online poker. Supporters say it would raise $22.5 million per year as the state faces stark financial problems.
Rep. Al Gentry, a Democrat from Louisville and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure isn’t going to solve all the state’s problems but it’s a good first step.
“It’s a first step to creating revenue,” Gentry said. “And we do this by retaining our discretional spending dollars from our Kentuckians who are currently leaving our borders,”
Sports betting is already legal in neighboring Indiana, West Virginia, Illinois and Tennessee. Ohio is considering it.
The bill would allow people to bet on sports in-person at Kentucky’s horse racing tracks or Kentucky Speedway. Online betting would also be permitted, but the state would tax it at a higher rate.
A similar version of the bill didn’t pass out of the legislature last year. Unlike the old version, the new bill allows for betting on Kentucky college sports.
Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger and primary sponsor of the bill, said the ban on college sports betting was unpopular.
“That was easily the item that I heard the most negative feedback about,” Koenig said.
The sports betting bill has been seen as a rare point of bipartisan agreement as the legislature begins crafting a two-year budget that will either have to cut spending or rely on new tax revenue.
Kentucky is facing an estimated $1 billion budget shortfall due to surging costs in the state’s Medicaid, corrections and pension systems, among other obligations.
But the bill is still opposed by some conservatives who say it would encourage gambling addiction.
Martin Cothran with the Kentucky Family Foundation argued that the measure would need to be a constitutional amendment in order to pass because it expands gambling.
“There is no net with holes big enough to let sports wagering in that are small enough to keep expanded gambling and other forms out and that is because it is a form of expanded gambling,” Cothran said.
Constitutional amendments require more votes to pass out of the legislature and require a majority of Kentuckians to approve them during a referendum.
State lawmakers are working on a bill to bring full-scale sports betting to Ohio. That's after the Supreme Court in May struck down a law that restricted sports betting everywhere except in Nevada. If it's legalized, there will be big money in it for casinos, tax collectors, and app developers.
But advocates for problem gamblers, and experts who study gambling disorders, warn that making sports betting legal will likely increase the number of people at risk for gambling addiction.