Kansas sports betting push stalls; odds of passage uncertain

TOPEKA — An effort to legalize sports betting in Kansas has stalled, and it’s not clear that state lawmakers can agree on how many places should offer wagering while also navigating other gambling issues clouding the debate.

Some sports betting supporters believe they still have time before the Legislature wraps up its business for the year in May to get a bill passed if it’s closer to a Senate proposal allowing only a handful of in-person wagering sites than to a House version allowing hundreds. But they have to overcome the opposition of a House committee chair who’d have a key role in drafting any compromise.

Other issues complicate the effort to pass a bill, including even some Democrats’ desire to ban greyhound racing. The mix of competing interests led the House this week to vote 77-40 against giving a sports betting bill first-round approval, leaving it in limbo.

“We’ll get a chance to take another crack at this, but you’ve got to thread the needle,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat.

Kansas officials believe the state’s take from sports betting could be only several million dollars a year. But even in a conservative-led, Republican-controlled Legislature, many lawmakers want to tap into wagering already occurring in other states or illegally. Twenty-five states allow sports betting, according to the American Gaming Association.

The Senate’s plan would limit on-site betting to Kansas’ four state-owned casinos and give them control of online and app wagering. Supporters say that in exchange, the casinos would assume the risk of losses from betting on big events such as the NCAA’s March Madness college basketball tournament.

The state constitution requires the Kansas Lottery to oversee sports betting, just as it requires lottery ownership of casino gambling outside of Native American tribal casinos. The lottery contracts with private companies to run the state-owned casinos.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who shepherded the Senate’s plans to passage on a 26-12 vote in early March, said sees several options for passing a bill, but added: “The Senate has a very solid position.”

The House plan would allow betting at the state-owned casinos, now-closed racetracks, as many as 1,200 retail stores that sell Kansas Lottery tickets, online and through apps linked to casinos, the tracks and the lottery. Clayton described it as the more “free-market” approach to sports betting.

The House plan also would give the state a larger share of the profits from sports betting: 14% from in-person betting and 20% from online and app wagering, compared to 5.5% and 8% under the Senate plan.

The chair of the House committee that drafted its plan, Republican Rep. John Barker, of Abilene, is a vocal opponent of what he derides as the Senate’s “casino bill.” He also dismisses an argument that the House plan leaves taxpayers more at risk of shouldering betting losses.

Barker — likely the House’s lead negotiator in talks with the Senate on sports betting — isn’t ruling more work on the legislation this year. He said if supporters of the Senate’s plan present a new proposal, “we can work something out.”

But he added, “It can’t be their proposal.”

Meanwhile, some lawmakers see the bill also as an opportunity to revive racetracks. State law allows lottery-owned slot machines at the tracks, but their owners have for years said the state’s share of the revenue is too high to make slots profitable.

The House committee added an amendment to drop the state’s share of slots revenue but later stripped the provision out when it appeared likely to hurt the bill. The House plan included a proposal to allow Sedgwick County voters to reconsider allowing slots at the closed Wichita Greyhound Park after rejecting the idea in 2007 — an idea that sharply divides area legislators.

Some lawmakers argued that such moves would prompt casino owners to sue the state for allegedly violating their contracts with the lottery. Barker, a retired trial-court judge, is skeptical the casinos would prevail, but other House members see a big risk.

“The expansion of the bill on our side just created a myriad of problems,” said Republican Rep. Brad Ralph, of Dodge City, home to a state-owned casino.

Finally, some Democrats want to ban greyhound racing, seeing it as an animal-welfare problem. But the House rejected the idea, costing its sports betting plan additional votes.

“Because there are so many different nuanced points, it’s difficult to get people together on this,” Clayton said.

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