Exclusive Q&A with Senator Damon Thayer on Kentucky's Legalization of Sports Betting
Insights from Kentucky Senator Thayer on the state’s sports betting bill & its potential impact
With the recent passage of House Bill 551 legalizing sports betting in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State is poised to join a growing number of states in the US that have legalized sports betting in recent years.
In this Gambling.Re Exclusive Q&A, we speak with Senator Damon Thayer, a key proponent of the bill, to gain insight into the legal updates surrounding sports betting in Kentucky.
Thayer sheds light on the challenges faced during the legalization process, the potential economic benefits and social impact of sports betting, and the timeline for residents of Kentucky to legally place their bets.
Gambling.Re: What is the main hurdle in legalizing sports betting in Kentucky, and how do you plan to overcome it with the new bill?
Senator Damon Thayer: Kentucky is a very conservative state, and I think a lot of the hurdles probably stem from a position of faith-based beliefs. This is a rare public policy issue that didn’t divide based on party affiliation but more so rural and urban. We saw strong support for House Bill 551 in my district, within Kentucky’s golden triangle in northern Kentucky, which borders Ohio where sports betting is legal. The same is true in the Louisville area bordering Indiana where it is legal. Lawmakers with constituencies in more rural parts of the state were more likely to oppose the bill, although some did vote yes on the bill.
I have always said I respect the position of other lawmakers who may disagree with me on this issue. Those with a moral objection to gambling are understandable, but for me, it’s a matter of freedom, and I think sports betting is an extension of Kentucky’s rich tradition of betting on horses.
Fortunately, we secured enough votes to pass sports betting in Kentucky this year. The huge turning point in the debate within the Senate Majority Caucus on House Bill 551 was when Senate President Robert Stivers decided he was a ‘yes’ vote. He serves a very rural district in southeastern Kentucky, which gave some members the confidence to vote yes.
Gambling.Re: With the recent push for sports betting legalization in Kentucky, what is your opinion on the balance between potential economic benefits and concerns about the social impact of sports betting?
Senator Damon Thayer: I think it’s an important debate and I am glad we could have it. Anything in excess can become a problem, so there were valid concerns expressed by those in the Kentucky General Assembly as it relates to problem gaming. That’s why a provision in House Bill 551 creates the Kentucky problem gambling assistance account and earmarks 2.5 percent of funds received in the sports wagering administration fund to the Kentucky problem gambling assistance account.
Ultimately, I believe in freedom of choice, and it’s important to recognize that—because of modern technology like cell phones—if people want to gamble, there are ways to do it. Additionally, Kentucky has been an island on this issue. Six of our surrounding states already had sports betting, so residents here in Kentucky don’t have far to drive if they want to bet on sports. Kentucky is a sports-crazy state, so it was insane that we were so far behind on this issue. When you think about giving people the freedom to spend their money as they choose and keeping those dollars in Kentucky generating revenue that will bolster Kentucky’s public pension systems, I think House Bill 551 is a win-win.
Gambling.Re: With neighboring states already having legalized sports betting, do you believe Kentucky is at a disadvantage in terms of revenue loss due to residents crossing state lines to bet on major events?
Senator Damon Thayer: When House Bill 551 goes into effect, it’s estimated it will bring approximately $23 million in revenue the state otherwise wouldn’t have, and I think that estimate is low. Without sports betting in Kentucky, we were at a disadvantage to the six surrounding states that already had legalized sports wagering because those dollars were going elsewhere. You must look no further than going across state lines to see all the Kentucky license plates. It exceeds the general revenue disadvantage because Kentucky is uniquely positioned to excel in sports betting. We are a sports-crazy state with one of the world's best-known college basketball teams, a great in-state rivalry between UK and UofL, not to mention our horse racing industry. If you put Kentucky on an equal playing field with surrounding states for sports betting, I would argue it’s more fun and rewarding for residents of other states to come here where they can enjoy our signature industries, including bourbon and all the great tourism Kentucky has to offer.
Gambling.Re: Are there other states or models that Kentucky has looked to for guidance in crafting this bill?
Senator Damon Thayer: Kentucky is pretty unique in that we have such a strong horse racing industry and its residents are so sports-crazy. With historical horse racing, our race tracks have some experience in this area, and the infrastructure is already there to support it. We looked at other states' structures and what works or doesn’t work, but I think Kentucky is pretty independent in how we are rolling out sports betting, although I am sure the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) will look at other states for best practices.
Gambling.Re: If the bill is passed, how soon do you expect Kentucky residents to be able to place their bets legally?
Senator Damon Thayer: The law will officially go into effect June 29, as the Constitution of Kentucky requires bills without an emergency declaration to go into effect 90 full days after the final adjournment of session, March 30. When residents can place wagers on sports depends on when our tracks, and the KHRC, can get things up and running. I believe the goal will be sometime around the beginning of the NFL season because we know people will want to place wagers on those games. Ultimately, those on the ground implementing the law can better answer that question.