Kentucky Gray Games Ban Bill Senate Bound After House Whips Votes for Passage

Posted on: March 8, 2023, 06:22h. 

Last updated on: March 10, 2023, 02:16h.

Leaders in the Kentucky House of Representatives were able on Wednesday to revive and pass a bill that would ban the operation of so-called skill games across the state.

A Pace-O-Matic employee demonstrates one of the company’s skill games to NASCAR legend Bobby Labonte (left) last month at the company’s Georgia headquarters. Pace-O-Matic’s games would be banned in Kentucky under a bill that passed the state House on Wednesday. (Image: Pace-O-Matic/Facebook)

The 64-32 vote to approve House Bill 594 capped a tumultuous few days in Frankfort that saw some in-fighting within the Republican Party, which controls 80 of the chamber’s 100 seats.

Opponents of the bill succeeded in tabling the measure Friday, a move that shocked sponsoring state Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, and several GOP leaders who support the bill.

Republican members caucused for hours on Tuesday and Wednesday before the House sessions for those days. There was also talk among Frankfort insiders in the Capitol hallways that the bill needed to be revived by Wednesday in order for it to be considered. At the same time, the House ordered readings of a second bill Timoney filed as a contingency.

That, though, was not needed as the House took action shortly after the recess ended Wednesday. A 66-10 vote took the bill off the table (Friday’s vote to table was 42-35), and moments later, with scant debate, the 2-to-1 vote moved the bill to the Senate.

Gray vs. Skill

The debate regarding the machines is a complex one.

Proponents of the games call them skill machines, noting that a player can win every time if they use their memory and hand-eye coordination. Game makers says they sent letters to leaders in all 120 counties seeking permission to offer their games to local establishments.

Opponents call them gray games, saying they’re unregulated and that operators brought the machines in stealthily. They fear the games will lead to increases in underage gambling and criminal activity. They say there are thousands of the games across the state, and more will come unless the state acts.

Kentucky has a long legacy of legalized gambling, but illegal gambling has never been in the best interest of our Commonwealth or its people,” House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, said in a statement. “Today‘s House vote sends a clear message that there is no place for gambling entities that skirt the law in order to flood Kentucky with unregulated casino-style gaming without limit or oversight.”

The Kentucky Merchants and Amusement Coalition (KY MAC), which represents hundreds of small businesses that host skill machines in their establishments, derided HB 594 as a bill backed by Churchill Downs, which controls nearly 60% of the roughly 6,900 historical horse racing machines operational in the state, and other horse racing interests.

KY MAC President Wes Jackson noted the irony that the House passed the ban bill on the same day a House committee signed off on a sports betting bill that gives tracks control over that gaming market.

“It’s unfortunate that even after so many Kentucky small business owners contacted their legislators about the benefits of skill games, and even after it became clear that many House members were not in favor of voting on this legislation last week, that several lawmakers decided to call HB594 for a vote and pass it today,” Jackson said.

Senate Awaits the BillGra

HB 594 now moves to the Senate for its consideration. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has strongly supported a ban bill.

Thayer told Wednesday evening he hopes the bill can get to that chamber’s floor for a vote next week.

After Wednesday, there are eight legislative days remaining in the session. Six of those will occur between Thursday and the following Thursday, with the final days on March 29-30.

Both chambers of the General Assembly voted to ban the machines last year, but the House did not approve a Senate amendment, causing the bill to fail. Representatives from both chambers worked on this year’s bill to address concerns that the bill would not ban arcade games, fair games, and eSports.

“We must restore the proper order, empowering the legislature to lead by drafting the laws that precede the addition of gaming in the Commonwealth,” Timoney said. “HB 594 represents hundreds of hours of effort by a number of stakeholders, as well as input from those for and against the proposal. We’ve talked to retailers and other business owners with machines, as well as law enforcement, state regulators, and even the gray machine companies. Ultimately, we made the decision to ban them entirely.”

Under the bill, those connected with the operation of the machines would be subject to a fine of up to $25,000.

If the bill banning the machines becomes law, it will likely face a court challenge, similar to one underway in Virginia, which has also moved to prohibit the machines in its establishments.