Slots are illegal in Kentucky, but the makers of these machines have found a loophole and games are pouring into the state without much regulation or approval from lawmakers.
When it comes to gambling in Kentucky, there are so many shades of gray, it’s hard to keep them apart. There is betting on horse racing, which is legal, and betting on basketball games, which is not. We have slot machines that are not slot machines but look exactly like slot machines. After numerous court battles, these slot machines, called “historical horse racing” were illegal until last year when a push by the horse racing industry led the General Assembly to define them as legal.
Now it seems we have something new called “gray slot machines” that are very definitely illegal, say the legislators who supported the illegal slot machines known as historical horse racing before they defined them as legal. That’s mostly because they don’t benefit the racing industry. They’re also cutting into Kentucky Lottery proceeds, which help fund college scholarships.
Other people, mostly from the Fraternal Order of Police, which benefits from these new machines, say they’re perfectly legal.
Many of us are just learning about this new maybe legal, maybe not, type of gaming, thanks to stories by Janet Patton and Bill Estep, which detail the debate. Apparently, the people who think they are illegal (people who thought the historical racing machines were legal) are going to declare the gray machines illegal through statute. The same way they declared the HHR machines legal through statute when they were technically illegal.
It’s confusing enough, particularly with people like Senate Floor Leader and former racing industry insider Damon Thayer who said all along that historical racing machines were legal before they were actually made legal with the help of Damon Thayer. He thinks the gray machines are illegal, but state FOP president says they are legal. (The reasons he thinks they are legal, like the reasons Damon Thayer thought HHR machines were legal are complicated and have to so with constitutional definitions of games of chance versus games of skill.)
Anyway, folks like Damon Thayer and his allies showed how easy it is to make some formerly illegal slot machines legal and now the gray machine advocates want a shot. The horse people showed them a really good model: Shower your legislators with attention and donations and they will make your slot machines legal, too.
So get the humor while you can, because there will be plenty of non-funny, long, rambling discussions about this. There will be strange political bedfellows and breakups. For example, the state FOP is a close ally of the GOP supermajority, so whose slot machines is a legislator supposed to pick? There are education advocates who don’t want lottery money to be diluted, and charitable organizations who don’t want people to stop playing bingo because there’s a better game down at the gas station.
It doesn’t have to be this complicated. Kentucky legislators should legalize all sports betting, along with whatever properly licensed slot machines that may or may not play games of skill or games of chance. Then the state should tax them all more, but also consistently and fairly, as Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, has proposed. That means both the horse industry and sports betting and slot machines support the state treasury in all the ways they need to. Not just to raise money for horse breeder incentive funds, but for education and healthcare and gambling addiction programs that are needed around the state.
Gambling, like drinking, may not be the highest moral plane that we as human beings can reach. On the other hand, a lot of people like to gamble and will do so whether it’s legal or not. One kind of slot machine is not better or worse than another. Legalize them all, let the chips fall where they may, and tax the hell out of all of it.