The Book sports betting area at the new Caesars Southern Indiana casino. (Dec. 12, 2019)  

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky is a step closer to legalizing sports betting.

House Bill 606, which would permit wagering on sporting events on smartphones and at horse tracks, unanimously passed out of the House Licensing, Occupations, & Administrative Regulations committee Wednesday morning.

It was one of a package of gambling-related bills taken up by the committee. Similar sports wagering bills died in previous sessions of the General Assembly, reflecting the divisiveness of gambling issues in the Bluegrass State.

But backers of this year's effort cite recent public opinion polls showing strong support from Democrats and Republicans. A poll by Western Kentucky University released last week shows a 73% approval of legalizing sports betting.

HB 606, a bipartisan bill whose chief sponsor is Republican Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger, seeks to legalize most forms of sports gambling and regulate taxes on all online gambling, including fantasy sports and online poker. He was hopeful Wednesday that the outcome for the long-running effort to legalize sports wagering could be different this year.

“I think we're in position, hopefully, to have better luck going forward,” he told the committee.

Another measure approved Wednesday would adjust the tax structure on horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering. It proposes a 1.5% tax on all pari-mutuel wagers, including historical horse racing, simulcast bets and advance-deposit wagering. As it stands now, each type is taxed at a different rate.

Also in the package is a proposed ban, House bill 608, on so-called "gray machines," which look like slot machines and pay out cash prizes to successful players. The machines have proliferated in convenience stores across the state.

Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Lexington, champions House Bill 608. He said the machines aren't regulated and sometimes in areas that are not age restricted either.

"We have to follow the right process with these things," Timoney said. "In order to do that, 608 is imperative."

One of the "Gray machine's" software company Pace-O-Matic spoke before the committee and said they self regulate.

"Although we are legal, we self-regulate to make sure that everyone is in compliance," said Paul Goldean, president and CEO of Pace-O-Matic.

Goldean said banning these skill based machines hurts small businesses.

"That's important because the backbone of our nation is small businesses," Goldean added.

Supporters of previous bills estimated that legalizing sports wagering would generate about $22 million in yearly revenue. They say the measure is needed to stop Kentuckians from flocking to neighboring states that allow sports betting.

The package of gambling-related bills adds to the stack of issues facing Kentucky lawmakers in the final weeks of this year's legislative session.

The bill cleared the House committee on the 49th day of this year's 60-day session. It still needs to win approval in the full House and in the Senate.

The measure would regulate an activity that already exists, Koenig said, pointing to estimates that millions of dollars are wagered illegally on sports every year in Kentucky.

“I think it's important to bring those people out of the shadows, to dry up the black market,” he said.

The bill drew opposition from The Family Foundation, a conservative group opposed to expanded gambling. David Walls, the foundation's executive director, said the sports wagering measure was an example of “bad government and bad policy.”

“This type of predatory gambling is designed to prey on human weakness, with the government colluding with the gambling industry to exploit our fellow Kentuckians,” he said.

This story will be updated. 

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