Kentucky sports betting legislation made it to the home straight for the first time but won’t cross the finish line.
The bill to legalize sports betting and online poker finally passed in the House after four years of trying. But HB 606 died on the Senate floor Thursday night when the chamber adjourned for the year.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer made it clear that it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
In an unusual step, Thayer addressed the issue on the floor in the final hour of the session to explain its failure. Here’s what he said:
“I’m personally disappointed that we were unable to pass sports betting. We just don’t have the votes. I think that will change by next year. I will continue to advocate for us adding this to our betting menu.”
Lack of Republican support kills sports betting bill
In 2020, Thayer asked the House to send over the Kentucky sports betting bill, saying there was support in the Senate. But when the House finally got it over this year, he saw the difficulty Rep. Adam Koenig had faced for years.
Many Republican lawmakers pledge to the Family Foundation of Kentucky that they won’t support any legislation expanding gambling when they take office.
“It’s always going to be very difficult because of rural concerns, in rural areas especially,” Thayer told Joe Sonka of the Louisville Courier-Journal following adjournment.
The Kentucky Legislature returned for two final legislative days Wednesday and Thursday following a two-week break. Koenig spent the time off trying to rally support in the Senate.
Koenig told PlayKentucky that during his accounting over the spring break, he had 11 solid yes votes from Senate Republicans. Combined with 8 votes from Democrats, that’s 19 of the 38 Senate members.
But that doesn’t mean the bill was one vote away. To get called for a vote on the Senate floor, Kentucky bills need majority support from the Republican caucus.
There are 30 Republicans in the Senate, meaning HB 606 needed 16 Republican supporters.
Senate President Robert Stivers was among the Republicans in opposition.
Thayer told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the bill would have failed on the Senate floor if leadership got it a vote.
Governor puts blame on Thayer
Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear has lobbied for sports betting legislation since 2020, when he surprised Koenig by applauding the Republican for introducing sports betting legislation during his State of the Commonwealth address.
On Thursday as the session waned, Beshear expressed his frustration of another year without sports betting at a news conference.
“My thought is if Damon Thayer wanted sports betting to pass, he’d get it passed. It’s time. The people of Kentucky absolutely want this.”
Beshear is right on the latter. A poll showed that 65% of Kentucky voters supported sports betting legalization.
Thayer bristled at Beshear’s comment and said he was playing politics in putting the blame on him.
“I am 100% for HB606 the sports betting bill,” Thayer responded in a tweet. “I have done everything I can do to help it get passed. But I can’t make people vote yes if they are opposed.”
Asked by local reporters why his colleagues weren’t for sports betting, Thayer said to ask them.
“I’m tired of being the spokesperson for the people who aren’t for sports betting. Ask them. I’m for sports betting. I think it’s a natural extension of our history and tradition of betting on horses in Kentucky. But I’m no longer going to give the reason. Find some of the people who are against sports betting and ask them.”
Kentucky sports betting progress still encouraging
Two years ago, Koenig was in the same position in the House as Thayer now is in the Senate. He couldn’t get enough support in the Republican caucus to move sports wagering and he blamed lobbying and threats from religious organizations.
This year, he finally got it through by a 58-30 vote with only mild pushback from the anti-gambling crowd.
Koenig supported four gaming bills this year. The only one to reach the finish line was a parimutuel modernization bill, which Beshear signed last week.
The Senate didn’t act on a bill to start a problem gambling fund with money obtained in the PokerStars settlement. And the House chose not to pass a bill banning gray machines unless the Senate passed sports betting.
If Missouri passes legislation this year as appears likely, all seven states surrounding Kentucky will have sports betting. That should add pressure in the Kentucky Legislature.
However, odd years are a more difficult climb for Kentucky legislation. In 2023, it’s only a 30-day session and bills must pass by a three-fifths vote.
That might make 2024 more likely for Kentucky sports betting passage, but Thayer isn’t giving up on 2023. If a majority of the Republican caucus supports the bill then three-fifths support will be there.