Sports betting bill gains momentum by clearing House panel

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A bill to legalize sports betting in Kentucky picked up bipartisan momentum Wednesday when a House committee voted unanimously to advance the measure that one estimate says would bring in about $22.5 million a year in new taxes.

The measure sailed through the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee on an 18-0 vote and now heads to the Republican-dominated House.

The sports betting bill is supported by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who gave it a brief plug during his State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday evening.

In a new twist, the proposal would allow wagering on college sports teams in Kentucky — a provision that was excluded from a 2019 sports betting bill that died in the legislature.

The new provision resolves a common complaint from people who want to bet on games involving Kentucky college sports teams, said Republican Rep. Adam Koenig, the bill's lead sponsor.

Many states have been racing to make sports betting legal following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a federal law that had banned the industry in much of the country.

Under the Kentucky bill, some of the new revenue generated by sports betting would be spent on regulating the new industry and helping people with gambling addiction problems. But most of the money would go to the state’s chronically underfunded public pension systems.

The sports betting debate comes amid the backdrop of Kentucky's dire need for additional revenue to meet its spending demands on things like public pensions, health care and corrections.

“Obviously a lot of folks see the revenue potential and see the opportunity to allow individuals to do something legally that they are currently doing illegally,” Koenig said.

Koenig said the estimate that sports betting would generate $22.5 million a year in new taxes was conservative. The bill's supporters acknowledged that sports betting revenue wouldn't come close to resolving the state's revenue needs but called it a good first step.

The House committee heard from two opponents who said gambling addiction breaks up families and causes bankruptcies. Martin Cothran, with The Family Foundation of Kentucky, said societal ills from sports betting would especially prey upon those who “can least afford to be on the losing end of the wagers."

Responding to moral objections with the bill, Democratic Rep. Al Gentry said: “They have the right to believe that way. But we're also not forcing them to participate in the activity."

Cothran also objected to the method being used to try to legalize sports betting in Kentucky. As a form of expanded gambling, it should be done through a constitutional amendment that would require approval by Kentucky voters, he said.

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The legislation is House Bill 137.