LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear made Kentucky history by signing a bill to legalize sports betting in the commonwealth Friday morning. He also signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana for certain medical conditions.
The bill won final legislative approval Thursday, clearing the last hurdle in the Senate after days of uncertainty over whether backers could muster enough support.
The Republican-dominated Senate passed the measure 25-12, where it was then sent to Beshear who has long supported the issue.
“We love our sports in the commonwealth,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer said in promoting the bill during debate. “And people want to be able to make the choice — of their own free will — to make a wager on a sports event, like almost all of our surrounding states.”
Senator Karen Berg echoed sentiments on free choice.
"I don't think I was elected to be the person that that has the power to tell my constituents what they can and can't do," she said.
The Democratic governor, who has advocated for sports betting throughout his term, hailed the bill's passage, declaring in a social media post: “Kentuckians will soon be able to place their bets here and for the first time” keep the resulting tax revenue in the Bluegrass State.
The bill's fate had loomed as one of the biggest uncertainties heading toward the conclusion of the 30-day legislative session. Supporters needed a minimum of 23 votes to pass it because it’s a revenue-producing bill in a non-budget year. The Senate ultimately decided to allow residents in the state that’s home to the Kentucky Derby to legally wager on other sporting events.
The bill would legalize, regulate and tax sports wagering in Kentucky. Supporters said it's estimated to generate about $23 million a year in tax revenue and licensing fees. Thayer said he thinks that the estimate is low.
Opponents called sports betting a highly addictive form of gambling that would hurt Kentucky families. Referring to the revenue estimates, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield said during the debate: “Ask yourselves, how much money people of Kentucky have to lose before we get that?”
“There will be people hurt by this," Westerfield said. "There will be people who can’t afford to bet, who will bet anyway.”
The bill would set aside 2.5% of the state's revenue toward gambling addiction.
It would also allow Kentucky’s horse racing tracks to be licensed as sports betting facilities for a $500,000 upfront fee and an annual renewal cost of $50,000.
Participating tracks could contract with up to three service providers for sports wagering services at the track itself, or through online sites and mobile applications. Service providers would have to pay $50,000 for an initial license and $10,000 a year to renew.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission would regulate sports wagering operations.
Revenue from taxing such wagering would cover regulatory costs. A percentage of the revenue would go to a fund to help combat problem gambling. After that, the revenue would go to the state public pension system.
Thayer, a long-running proponent for legal sports wagering, said he views it as an extension of “our time-honored tradition of betting on horse races.”
“This is a great day for the commonwealth and its people,” he said. "Freedom won the day.”
History of gambling in Kentucky
In 1988, voters approved the Kentucky lottery, an issue that swept Democrat Wallace Wilkinson into office as governor over John Y. Brown, Jr.
In July 2010, Kentucky's Racing Commission modified its definition of pari-mutuel wagering to allow historic racing machines at racetracks.
Then on May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned sports gambling in most states.
In Kentucky that same year, then-Governor Matt Bevin said it would be up to the legislature to pass a bill, and addressed those who argued the revenue would be important for the state.
"I've been hearing that. It's the same thing I've heard for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. There's a lot of ways we could get money. We could rob banks if we wanted to, that's another option. I advise against all of the above. It's a sucker's bet," he said.
Historical horse racing machines were brought back to the forefront in 2020, but the General Assembly ultimately passed a bill making them legal.
It set up places like Derby City Gaming to expand. Their second location at 4th and Market in downtown Louisville is expected to open later in 2023 as Churchill renovates a former bank headquarters.
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