The race for the highest office in Kentucky is heating up, and sports betting is front and center.
Last week, Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, and his challenger, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, squared off in a debate in Paducah. Beshear, whose father was the previous governor, is running on a pro-gambling platform. He wants to expand gaming in the Bluegrass State in an effort to keep tax revenue from flowing into neighboring states. Beshear has the lofty ambition of using gaming to help resolve the state’s public pension crisis, a system that has more than $40 billion in debts, according to the Courier-Journal. Pensions aside, expanding gaming is good policy for Kentucky.
Beshear is looking for “new dedicated revenue” and he sees Las Vegas-style casinos, retail plus online/mobile sports betting, and online poker as a major part of the solution.
“We have to start with expanded gaming,” Beshear said at the debate. “We talk about being competitive, other states are eating our lunch. It’s Tennessee that just authorized sports betting. It is Indiana [and its casinos] that has leached money off of us. We already lose $550 mm of tax revenue from what Kentuckians bet in our border states in casinos. It’s time for casino gaming, it’s time to treat fantasy sports for what they are, it’s time for sports betting, and we need to prepare for online poker, which is coming.”
Bevin is generally opposed to expanding gaming in Kentucky.
Tennessee sports betting on the horizon
Beshear is correct to see a problem with Tennessee having sports betting while Kentucky does not. Tennessee is expecting to have some 3.6 million of its annual tourists wager on sports each year, and many of those will come from the Bluegrass State. Tennessee is a casino-less state, so it decided to authorize online/mobile platforms that will be accessible once you cross into the state. Kentuckians can go to any bar or restaurant in the Volunteer State to watch sports and wager on legal, Tennessee-sanctioned platforms.
On Thursday, Indiana began online/mobile sports betting. Two platforms launched and more are expected to come online this fall. Several Hoosier State casinos are positioned along Kentucky’s border, so losing gaming dollars to Indiana is nothing new for Beshear’s state. The casinos also have retail sportsbooks.
Additionally, Ohio is slowly but surely moving the ball down the field on its sports betting discussion.
Kentucky’s 2019 sports betting efforts
While Bevin isn’t a full-fledged supporter of legal sports betting, he wasn’t blamed for the state’s unsuccessful efforts in 2019. Lawmakers from the more conservative and rural parts of Kentucky opposed sports gambling, so even if Beshear is elected in November, the fight for sports wagering won’t be easy.
It’s worth noting that Beshear’s father, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who served from 2007 to 2015, was unsuccessful in bringing casinos to Kentucky.
State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Northern Kentucky (a more socially liberal part of the state), remains confident that he can find success with his sports betting bill in 2020. This year, Koenig needed to find a supermajority of 60 votes (out of 100). In 2020, Koenig will need a more manageable 51 votes to send his sportsbook proposal to the Kentucky Senate.
“Needing a supermajority of votes was too high a bar to get in a short time period,” Koenig told US Bets in March. “We will regroup and reload with a better plan to win the hearts and minds of the public next year. We will only need a simple majority, and it will be a budget year where that $20-$48 mm [in tax revenue] will look a lot more important. I really like the chances next year.”
Koenig’s bill also called for regulating online poker. Beshear signaled he wants online poker as well.
For what it’s worth, U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky came out in support of sports betting this year.
“We in Kentucky have been pretty accepting of betting on horses,” Paul, a Republican, told Spectrum News. “I don’t think betting on horses is different than betting on a slot machine or sports, so I’m pretty open to letting adults choose what they want to do … I think allowing people to bet on sports is no different than betting on horses, which most people in Kentucky are accepting of.”
What if Bevin is re-elected?
A Bevin win wouldn’t spell doom for Kentucky’s 2020 sports betting efforts, but it would definitely make it more of an uphill battle. He’s staunchly opposed to Las Vegas-style casinos coming to Kentucky, but he could be open to allowing the state’s tracks to have sports wagering. Sports betting could be especially attractive if the tracks lose a legal challenge to their slot-like instant racing machines.
In May 2018, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn PASPA, Bevin indicated he would be open to considering sports betting on its own. He told reporters that “sports betting has happened since the dawn of time” and acknowledged that betting on horses isn’t too much different.
However, in late July, Bevin raised some eyebrows with what the gaming industry took as an incendiary comment about casinos.
“Every night somewhere in America somebody takes their life in a casino because they’ve wasted the last semblance of dignity and hope that they had,” Bevin claimed during a radio interview. “Families are ruined, lives are ruined. There is a societal cost.”
The remark drew a rebuke from the American Gaming Association, which represents the commercial casino industry. Bill Miller, president and CEO of the AGA, said in a statement: “Gov. Bevin’s comments this morning about the casino gaming industry were patently false and irresponsible. Our industry commits hundreds of millions of dollars a year to address the very serious issue of problem gambling, ensuring that patrons have the tools they need to engage in our offerings in a responsible manner.”
Bevin’s comments can be seen as effort to undermine one of Beshear’s top campaign messages.
Kentucky’s path forward with gaming could largely be decided on Nov. 5, making the gubernatorial election one to watch for the gaming industry.