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Former Legislator Explains How Kentucky Sports Betting Reached Finish Line

Former Kentucky Rep. Adam Koenig explains how Kentucky sports betting was legalized even though he was no longer there to drive the bill.

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Matthew Kredell Avatar
4 mins read

Adam Koenig was driving home from picking up dinner at Chipotle when he heard Kentucky sports betting called to the Senate floor.

He started yelling in his car, knowing legislation he had worked hard to pass was finally crossing the finish line.

“I didn’t get any heads-up or know it was coming,” Koenig told PlayUSA. “When I heard it called, I was feeling pretty emotional.”

Koenig was supposed to be steering the bill home, not himself. After four years championing sports betting legalization as a Kentucky state representative, he lost his re-election bid last year.

But then he got a call from Rep. Michael Meredith, who had taken the sports betting reins. Meredith told him to drop whatever he was doing and get over there. Soon, Koenig was photographed celebrating with Meredith and Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer at the state capitol.

“We may have partied hard that night,” Koenig said.

The next morning, Koenig, now working as executive director of the Kentucky Quarter Horse Association and a consultant for Red Mile Racetrack, joined Meredith and Thayer at Gov. Andy Beshear’s signing of the Kentucky sports betting bill.

Paving the way for Kentucky sports betting

A Kentucky lawmaker first introduced sports betting legislation in 2017. After the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, the legislature formed a panel to study the merits of legalizing sports betting.

Later that year, Beshear, as attorney general, called on the legislature to legalize Kentucky sports betting to raise money for an ailing pension system.

That’s when Koenig came in. He first introduced his bill to legalize sports betting, online poker and daily fantasy sports in 2019.

In his 2020 State of the Commonwealth address, Beshear, now governor, said he fully supported Koenig’s bill. But as a Democratic governor with a Republican-controlled legislature, that didn’t exactly help with passage.

Finally, in 2022, Koenig got Kentucky sports betting legislation through the House. Koenig said the bill had the votes to pass in the Senate. But he and Thayer could not get enough Republican support to bring it to a vote.

“Moses didn’t get to see the promised land, but he got them on the path,” Koenig said the day Kentucky sports betting finally passed the Senate.

Sometimes a change is needed

When Koenig surprisingly lost in the primary election last May to Rep. Steven Doan, chances for 2023 Kentucky sports betting passage seemed slim.

Odd-numbered years also create a greater difficulty in passing legislation in Kentucky. The legislature only meets for 30 days and passage requires a three-fifths vote rather than a simple majority.

Koenig identified four reasons why Kentucky sports betting reached the finish line despite the obstacles:

  • A change in sponsor helped. Koenig had used a lot of capital to get controversial bills on historical horse racing, direct shipment of alcohol and works comp passed. “I think at some point people were tired of Adam sending controversial bills that make people uncomfortable,” Koenig said.
  • Even though odd-numbered years require a higher vote threshold, they can be easier to pass controversial legislation. In even years, lawmakers worry about re-election.
  • Senate changes in the 2022 election were favorable. Koenig named Sens. Amanda Mays Bledsoe and Matthew Deneen as two new electees who proved important.
  • As one himself, Meredith was better able to connect with colleagues representing rural districts. “He speaks rural and I don’t,” Koenig said. “So I think in a lot of ways he had the opportunity to do a better job at selling it to some than I did.”

Time frame for Kentucky sports betting launch

House bill 551 takes effect 90 days after the attorney general enacts the legislation. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) puts this date at or around June 28.

The law then gives the commission six months from the effective date to complete regulatory framework.

But Beshear said he wants Kentucky sports betting to launch before the NFL season starts in September.

Koenig, consulting with Red Mile on how to fill the track’s three allotted online sports betting skins, said he thinks it is possible.

Starting that quickly would require emergency regulation approval from the governor. Once the KHRC finishes the regulations, they would go through a three-to-six-month final review by the legislature. Beshear can put the regulations into effect immediately while they make their way through the legislature.

In a statement, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said:

“KHRC is dedicated to fulfilling its responsibilities in a timely manner while ensuring a successful implementation of sports wagering in Kentucky.”

Future of gaming in Kentucky

While sports betting finally reached the finish line in Kentucky, online poker and daily fantasy sports weren’t along for the ride.

Meredith dropped them from the bill at introduction, hearing sports betting stood a better chance in the Senate on its own.

That was disappointing to Koenig, a longtime online poker player.

“I’m not mad,” Koenig said. “I figured it was always going to have to come out, and I accepted that reality.”

Koenig said Beshear could authorize online poker by executive order if he wanted. But Beshear wouldn’t consider it until after what figures to be a hotly contested re-election campaign next year.

A traditionally conservative gaming state despite its long history with horse racing, Kentucky also has the lottery, historical horse racing machines and soon, sports betting.

Koenig said the legislature could address table games, online poker, daily fantasy sports and, perhaps, online casino at some point. But he believes Kentucky needs a break on gambling bills, particularly during an election year.

“It doesn’t make any sense not to legalize fantasy sports,” Koenig said. “It’s happening out in the open, untaxed and unregulated. But I think there will be a pause on gaming bills.”

Matthew Kredell Avatar
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Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 and has interviewed more than 300 state lawmakers around the country.

View all posts by Matthew Kredell

Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 and has interviewed more than 300 state lawmakers around the country.

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