Kentucky online poker bill coming down to the wire again

Will Kentucky Get Caught Looking At Online Poker Again In 2020?

Kentucky is once again behind in the count on gambling legislation in 2020.

An effort to legalize online poker and sports betting, spearheaded by Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger), got off to a promising start in 2019 before stalling out in the House. Koenig reintroduced a similar bill this year, and the prospects for success looked a lot better the second time around.

Unfortunately, the odds are getting longer. Despite starting as a favorite, Kentucky now appears to be an underdog to pass any gambling bill this year.

The problem isn’t outright opposition so much as cold feet on the part of potential supporters, namely the Republicans who control both halves of Kentucky Legislature.

Although Koenig has worked to make regulated gambling a bipartisan issue, he’s found more support among House Democrats than his own party. Even some fellow-Republican advocates want a stronger consensus to mitigate the backlash from their conservative constituencies.

Time running out for Kentucky gambling bill

The bill in question (H 137) isn’t dead yet; it’s just running out of time. It hasn’t moved in months, seemingly stuck in limbo after clearing committee back in January.

Indicators that confidence is lacking can be found in the budget plan that the House passed last week. The single biggest argument for legalized gambling in Kentucky is the potential tax contribution, but the proposed budget contains no such revenue — not even a mention.

The lawmaking session ends on April 1, so just three weeks remain to bring Koenig’s bill to the floor for a vote. The sponsor claims that he has the necessary support in his chamber and, indeed, passage there shouldn’t be too hard. He has 41 co-sponsors in the 100-member House.

Many of those potential votes, however, come from Republicans who feel the bill shouldn’t be brought to the floor unless it’s clear it will pass the Senate as well. That’s a considerably bigger lift.

Amendments abound

Another challenge facing the bill is the number of amendments on file.

A total of 18 proposed changes came flooding in from Koenig’s colleagues after Licensing, Occupations, and Administrative Regulations reported its committee substitute. Some amount to minor adjustments and clarifications, including three from Koenig himself.

Others, however, pose potentially bigger problems.

Rep. Jason Petrie, for instance, submitted several proposals to increase the taxes and licensing fees. Rep. Jeff Hoover wants online poker to fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Protection Cabinet rather than the Kentucky Lottery Corporation. An amendment submitted by Rep. Mark Hart would remove poker from the bill entirely.

Those changes have to be considered before a vote can be cast.

If not now for online poker, then when?

When the 2020 session got underway in Kentucky, there were some good reasons to believe that this was the year for sports betting and online poker.

It is, for starters, a budget year. The Kentucky Legislature works on a biennial cycle and approves budgets in even-numbered years. Odd-numbered years have a shortened 30-day session, while budget years get a full 60 days.

That gave Koenig considerably more time to muster support in 2020 — time that is now running out.

What’s more, bills generating or appropriating revenue need additional votes to pass in non-budget years. That was one of the obstacles Koenig faced in 2019, and it will be a similar hindrance to any potential attempt in 2021.

That said, not all of this year’s advantages evaporate if the current effort fails. The state’s new governor, Andy Beshear, should be around until at least 2023. He’s been a vocal proponent of online gambling, including in his former role as attorney general.

Kentucky’s neighbors have, moreover, been hard at work on expanded gambling. Indiana has already been a big success story, while Virginia lawmakers approved online lottery, sports betting, and casino bills just last week.

Still, the third time seems unlikely to be the charm for Kentucky, given the hurdles that face revenue-related legislation in a non-budget year.

If online poker doesn’t pass now, its next best chance might not come until 2022.

Hope springs eternal in Kentucky

It’s too early to rule Kentucky out entirely. The chicken might be fried, but the goose isn’t quite cooked just yet.

Though the Senate seems like the biggest question mark in Kentucky, it might end up helping indirectly. Budgetary priorities are different in the upper chamber, and senators will likely propose an increase in spending over the current $24 billion.

Such an increase would require more revenue, so Koenig could make one last push for expanded gambling as a means to balance the budget.

There’s also a small chance that the budget itself could present the solution even if the bill fails. There’s nothing stopping legislators from including provisions for sports betting directly in the budget package, something we’ve seen before in Rhode Island.

Koenig is unenthusiastic about that prospect.

It’s unlikely that such a plan would include online poker since it would take longer to get off the ground, and the ceiling for potential revenue is much lower. It might, however, be a low-commitment option for Republicans uneasy about voting to expand gambling in Kentucky.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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