Kentucky: Proposal to ban slot-like machines stalls in House

March 3, 2023 4:14 PM
Photo: By Kittugwiki - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
  • Associated Press
March 3, 2023 4:14 PM
  • Associated Press

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A proposal to ban devices resembling slot machines stalled Friday in the Kentucky House, creating more uncertainty over whether lawmakers will resolve the intensely lobbied issue.

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The debate revolves around cash payout games that have proliferated in stores across the Bluegrass State. Supporters refer to them as legal “skill games,” while others dubbed them as “gray machines,” based on their murky legal status.

The bill aimed at banning the machines cleared a House committee on a 13-7 vote Thursday evening, teeing up the bill for action in the full House. But in a dramatic turn of events Friday, House members instead approved a motion to table the measure — House Bill 594.

The motion was offered by Republican Rep. Steven Doan, who has proposed another option — to regulate and tax the machines. That proposal hasn’t made any headway in the House.

“I ask that this body join in having an honest conversation on what regulating these machines looks like in Kentucky,” Doan said. “Only one bill has been given the chance to move through the legislative process, but there is another way.”

His motion to halt action on the proposed ban was approved on a 42-35 vote.

The outcome cast uncertainty over the issue with two-thirds of this year’s 30-day legislative session completed. The issue has confounded Kentucky lawmakers for some time.

Last year, a bill to banish the machines passed the House and Senate, but lawmakers couldn’t agree on an amended version before the legislative session ended. That led to months of continued jockeying by both sides in preparation for their next showdown in this year’s session. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.

A prominent group supporting the ban expressed its disappointment Friday with the vote to table the bill but said the fight was “far from over.” The group, Kentuckians Against Illegal Gambling, urged the House to reconsider the proposed ban as soon as possible.

“Not passing HB594 is a vote for the continued proliferation of untaxed, unregulated and dangerous illegal gambling across the commonwealth.” said Mark Guilfoyle, the group’s executive director.

The Kentucky Merchants and Amusement Coalition, which supports keeping the games in the state, said the House made the “right choice” Friday. The group’s president, Wes Jackson, said “the best and most reasonable solution is to support Kentucky small business by taxing and regulating skill games.”

Proponents of the machines refer to them as “games of skill” that require the player to do more than push a button.

The issue has been lobbied intensely by both sides, and their well-scripted talking points were on full display during the House committee hearing Thursday evening.

Proponents of the ban focused on the proliferation of the machines. A failure to banish the devices will lead to the largest expansion of gambling in Kentucky history, they said.

“We’re going to see mini casinos popping up on every street corner across Kentucky. These things are going to be woven into the fabric of everyday life,” Guilfoyle said.

Opponents of the ban countered that such a move would hurt small businesses — including gas stations and bars — that offer the games to customers. They promoted the competing legislation that would regulate and tax the machines.

“How many companies have come here and said, ‘please tax us, please regulate us, please license us?’ We’re willing to do that,” said Bob Heleringer, representing a maker of skill games. “We want to work with state government.”

They accuse the state’s horse racing industry of wanting to banish the machines to gain a gambling monopoly. The racetracks have tapped into their own lucrative revenue source in Kentucky through historical horse racing machines. The slots-style devices allow people to bet on randomly generated, past horse races. The games typically show video of condensed horse races.