Sports wagering legalization faces uncertain future in Kansas House

Titus Wu Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, chairman of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, is pushing for sports wagering legalization.

The Kansas House shot down its own proposal Tuesday evening that would make sports gambling legal in the state, dealing a serious setback for efforts to legalize sports wagering this year.

A number of Democrats and Republicans disapproved of the legislation bogged down by several hot-button components. And the Senate version of the bill has some things that House members don't like, setting up more potential for legislative gridlock.

The House's proposal would have allowed up to 1,200 lottery dispensers to participate in betting, along with a number of casinos. The state would also receive 14% to 20% of betting revenue.

More: Kansans could be able to bet on the Chiefs, Jayhawks. Here's what to know.

"It helps the local economy," said Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who shepherded the bill. "Those Casey's and those little convenience stores, they pay local property tax. They pay sales taxes."

But quite a few lawmakers took issue with an added provision allowing Sedgwick County to hold a re-vote to have slot machines in the Wichita Greyhound Park. The county rejected slots in a 2007 referendum, but residents have been pushing for a do-over.

If that happened, it could be a breach of contract with a nearby casino to not expand gambling in certain areas. Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued an opinion in 2016 arguing that a re-vote could leave the state open to a legal challenge, meaning a multi-million dollar settlement with gaming facilities in Kansas.

"You're being asked to invite litigation against the state. You know you're going to be sued, and you're preparing for it in the legislation," said Rep. Bradley Ralph, R-Dodge City. "That commitment to the state can be upwards of several hundred million dollars to date." 

Others wanted more revenue to go toward the state and have much of the sports wagering process go through the lottery. One amendment that failed asked some revenue dedicated to mental health purposes to fight gambling addiction.

The proposal also lost quite a few Democrat supporters without a complete ban on greyhound, or dog, racing. There was a complete ban on betting on greyhound races added into the bill, though.

Greyhounds charge out of the starting box at the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 31, 2020, the last day of legal dog racing in Florida. Kansas Democrats want to outlaw dog racing, period.

"Dog racing is not popular. There is an end of dog racing going across the country," said Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa. "We hear about the stories of how the greyhounds that can race are treated, but we don't hear about the ones that are not eligible to race."

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, told reporters that the bill failed because "there were just too many folks that wanted different things."

"There are so many conflicting opinions," he said.

Whether Abilene's Barker will attempt to revive the proposal in the House, or whether any sports betting bill can get through the chamber, remains to be seen.

The chief proponent of sports betting in the Kansas Senate, Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, agreed the future was unclear but stressed it could be a chance to revitalize his own proposal, which remains on the table.

House members have expressed a dislike toward the Senate version, however, as that bill gives the state significantly lower revenue from sports betting, and casinos have much more control of the process.

Longbine said he was hopeful House members could come around.

"We have a Senate position that is still alive," Longbine said. "My hope would be the House regroups and takes a closer look at our bill."

Ryckman noted that the future of the bill would ultimately hinge on Kansans making known their desire for sports betting in the waning days of the session.

“We’ll see if the people of the state still want sports betting,” he said. “If they don't, then I think this body has spoken. If they do, they’ll let us know.”