Why Did KY Finally Pass Sportsbook Bill? Lack Of Tribal Influence Helped

Posted on May 24, 2023

During odd-numbered years, the Kentucky legislature only has a 30-day legislative session. As a result, bills have an incredibly short timeframe to pass both chambers.

Furthermore, odd years require a two-thirds approval from the Senate and House to get to Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk.

In other words, the Kentucky sports betting bill was fighting an uphill battle from the start of 2023.

However, HB 551 defied the odds, and Beshear signed it within the 30-day timeframe.

A key factor in the bill’s passage is the lack of a Native American tribe in the Bluegrass State.

Without tribal influence, lawmakers coalesced around horse racing industry

Kentucky is one of 15 states without a federally recognized tribe residing inside its borders.

Typically, these tribes have gaming compacts with the state government, allowing them to operate casinos or other gambling establishments.

Therefore, the tribes already have a stake in the state’s gambling industry. If it’s one of the many states where tribal and commercial gaming exists, it creates an interesting legislative dynamic. The entities will lobby lawmakers to pass sports betting legislation that favors their interests.

For example, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has exclusivity over most forms of casino gaming in Florida. Other forms of gambling are relegated to pari-mutuel facilities and horse racing tracks.

In 2021, the state passed a new gaming compact that essentially gave the tribe total control over a Florida sports betting market. That compact was met with ferocious legal backlash from a pari-mutuel facility. The compact is still tied up in the court system two years after the state passed the deal.

California faced a similar situation when both tribal and commercial interests put forth a sports betting ballot initiative in the 2022 election. After hundreds of millions spent on PR campaigns, both initiatives failed.

In California, there are tribal casinos, horse racetracks, card rooms and outside operators looking for a piece of the proverbial pie. All of which are represented by different lawmakers. Thus, getting a bill through was next to impossible.

But then there’s Kentucky.

Before sports betting passed, Kentuckians could only bet on horse races and the lottery.

The Kentucky horse racing industry was already powerful in the state. And no opposing entity stopped it from taking control of the sports gambling industry in Kentucky.

United lawmakers allowed for easy debate and small changes

Since lawmakers agreed on which group should run the industry, they didn’t make sweeping changes to the bill.

There was no debate about whether the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission should regulate sports betting. There was no argument about the 10 KY venues eligible to run sportsbooks.

Instead, the proposed amendments to the KY sportsbook legislation were minor issues. One questioned whether credit card deposits should be legal. The other sought to raise the legal betting age from 18 to 21.

Compared to other states, those debates are minor.

Ultimately, it just comes down to whether or not the political appetite for sports betting exists.

Luckily for Kentucky gamblers, it was.

And soon, apps like BetMGM Kentucky and DraftKings Kentucky will be live and taking bets.

Photo by AP / Jessica Hill
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Steve Schult

The Managing Editor of PlayKentucky, Steve Schult is a veteran of the gambling industry with more than a decade of experience covering the space. After earning his journalism degree from Marist College, the New York native began covering high-stakes poker tournaments and the U.S. gambling industry for various outlets. Following stints as a writer for Card Player Media, Bluff Magazine and the World Series of Poker, Schult joined Catena Media and has managed coverage for a handful of states.

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