Kentucky Politics

Gov. Andy Beshear is trying to rally support for a bill that would legalize sports betting in Kentucky as the proposal continues to languish in the Republican-led state House of Representatives.

Supporters say the proposal would raise about $22 million per year in revenue for the state, which has struggled to make enough money to cover budgeted expenses in recent years.

Beshear held a press conference on Thursday as a show of force for the bill, with supporters advocating how the measure could raise funds for services like education, pensions and healthcare.

“That $22 plus million is the difference between vital services we will or will not be able to provide. I think when you put it into that context, that makes the decision a little bit easier for people,” Beshear said during the press conference.

Kentucky has a massive $37 billion pension debt, requiring the state to make higher payments into the pension system and crowding out funding for other state services.

The sports betting bill would legalize sports betting parlors and online betting and the state would tax the transactions.

People could bet in-person at parlors located in Kentucky’s horse tracks and the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. Online betting would also be permitted, but the state would tax it at a higher rate.

Unlike a version of the bill that failed to pass last year, the new bill allows for betting on Kentucky college sports.

The measure passed out of a legislative committee last month and has been scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives for weeks, raising concerns that the bill did not have enough support in the 100-member Republican-led chamber.

Kent Ostrander, executive director of the conservative Kentucky Family Foundation, opposes the bill and says that it would require a constitutional amendment for it to become law.

“This is a major change in public policy, why wouldn’t you want everyone involved?” Ostrander said. Amending the state constitution requires a three-fifths majority to approve a measure in the legislature and then for Kentucky voters to approve it on Election Day.

“The answer I think is that they don’t have the votes to pass a constitutional amendment. They’re arguing that they don’t need to have one, and that’s not a good argument,” Ostrander said.

Beshear says the sports betting bill would not require a constitutional amendment. When asked if the Family Foundation would sue to block the bill if it becomes law, Ostrander said “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to the river.”

Sports betting is already legal in neighboring Indiana, West Virginia, Illinois and Tennessee. Ohio is considering it.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers supports the bill. Republican Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger said he supports the bill because he is a “Reagan Republican.”

“I believe in less government, more freedom and personal responsibility. Those were all tenets of the president and I think pretty much everyone here agrees with that in this case. It’s time we bring these dollars and keep these dollars home,” Koenig said.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.