Published: November 10, 2019

2020 Sports Gambling Passage in Kentucky Possible

Legislators said sports wagering, conducted at racetracks, has a chance at passage.

Democrat Andy Beshear's apparent narrow victory over incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin in the Nov. 5 gubernatorial election in Kentucky could bring a backer of expanded gambling into statewide office, though the passage of any gambling bills other than sports wagering appears a longshot in a legislature that has long opposed such measures.

The only legal gambling in Kentucky is the lottery and pari-mutuel horse racing, including the slot-like historical horse racing terminals that have created vast revenue for tracks and sent horse racing purses in the state soaring. Past attempts at bringing casino gambling into Kentucky were met with failure, including a bipartisan push in 2012 during the administration of Beshear's father, Gov. Steve Beshear.

"It's just something that does not have much support in the Kentucky State Senate," Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said of casino gambling. "One of our pro-gambling senators, Dan Seum, is resigning. We'd even be down another vote and we don't have many to begin with. So it's really not something that is going to take up our time or energy."

The outlook for an expansion of gambling to include legalized sports wagering is more favorable in 2020. A sports wagering bill introduced last year by Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger, cleared committee, though it never made it to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. That legislation called for Kentucky racetracks and Kentucky Speedway, an auto racing track in the state, to serve as "bricks and mortar" locations for sports wagering, supplemented by mobile betting.

Due to idiosyncrasy in the state constitution, revenue bills—a class under which sports wagering is considered—need 60% approval of the House to pass in odd-numbered years, compared to a simple majority, or 51%, in even-numbered years. There are 100 members of the Kentucky House.

"We didn't have 60, but we had north of 51," Koenig said of the votes that would have been needed for passage.

Thayer, who also backs sports wagering, predicts a 2020 vote in the Senate would prove close, requiring a bipartisan coalition for passage.

As key participants in Koenig's bill in 2019 and the one he intends to sponsor in 2020, racetracks stand to benefit if sports wagering in Kentucky comes to fruition.

"I think sports wagering could be a real exciting development for the state and for those of us that are in the horse racing industry," Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said.

More than 10 states already have legalized sports wagering, including Kentucky's neighbor Indiana.

Koenig believes Beshear's influence and whether he also pitches for casinos will impact the prospects for sports wagering.

"There is more support for sports wagering than there is for full-blown casinos, and I say that as someone that is a fan of casinos or a fan of legalizing casinos," he said. "But if he tries to push casinos and those issues get conflated, I think it hurts sports wagering because it will be a different narrative."

Long before the legislature meets next year, the outcome of the gubernatorial election must be officially decided. With Beshear on top by roughly 5,000 votes from more than 1.4 million cast, Bevin has not conceded and has requested a recanvass of vote totals. A recount could also follow.

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