Kentucky Gray Games Ban Bill Heads to Governor After Senate’s Quick Approval

For the second straight year, the Kentucky General Assembly has passed a bill that would ban so-called gray games, gaming machines also known as skill games. However, unlike last year’s bill, this one will head to Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) desk.

Prominent
Prominent Technologies’ booth at Amusement Expo 2021 in Las Vegas. On Tuesday, the Kentucky Senate voted to pass House Bill 594, which would formally ban so-called skill gaming machines, also known as gray games, developed by Prominent and other manufacturers. (Image: Prominent Technologies)

The Senate on Tuesday voted 29-6 to pass House Bill 594, which seeks to ban the machines that have sparked debate over the last couple of years across the state.

Game makers like Pace-O-Matic and Prominent Technologies have installed their machines in nearly all 120 of Kentucky’s counties. They say they sought and received approval from local officials before working with local businesses, such as convenience stores and restaurants, to install machines in their establishments and share the revenue. They call the machines skill games because players can use their memory and hand-eye coordination to win.

However, representatives from the horse racing industry and charitable gaming groups have protested their presence, claiming the machines are illegal. Opponents of the machines say the other side only discussed seeking regulation and taxation in response to efforts to ban the games outright.

Last year, both chambers passed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Killian Timoney, the Nicholasville Republican who also championed this year’s bill to ban the games. However, the Senate amended Timoney’s bill last year, and lawmakers could not reconcile the bill before the session ended.

While this year’s bill will go before Beshear, who has indicated his support for the measure, it’s likely to face a legal challenge from businesses that host the machines.

It’s also possible supporters in the legislature will come back with a bill to regulate and tax the machines. Two House lawmakers filed such bills this year, but neither received a committee hearing.

Quick Action in the Senate

The Senate wasted little time in handling the bill. The Licensing and Occupations Committee voted 8-2 Tuesday morning to refer HB 594 to the full body, which took it up hours later.

The skill-or-gray debate was not as contentious in the Senate as in the House, where opponents to a ban initially succeeded in tabling the bill, only to have proponents revive it last week and pass it 64-32.

Still, even one supporter of the measure called out the “hypocrisy” after the General Assembly to codified historical horse racing (HHR) two years ago after a Kentucky Supreme Court opinion threw their legality in doubt.

I sure wish the passion for stopping these machines had been here two years ago, because it is the exact opposite scenario,” state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, said on the floor while explaining his vote. “Instead of wanting to help an industry, we’re trying to stop an industry, and I don’t like either of the industries.”

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) approved regulations for HHR machines in 2010. The commission then sought a legal opinion that it had the authority to allow tracks to host the slot machine-like games that use previously run races to determine the outcome of a wager rather than a random number generator. Another distinction between HHR and Vegas-style slots is that HHR machines are considered parimutuel wagering, which is allowed under Kentucky law.

After the Supreme Court issued its opinion in September 2020, legislative leaders made a bill granting the KHRC the power to establish such games a priority in the 2021 session.

Reaction After the Vote

After the Senate’s vote, the Kentucky Merchant and Amusement Coalition (KY MAC), the group representing businesses that host the machines, issued a statement expressing its dismay.

“It’s clear that some lawmakers are committed to putting the requests of one constituent, Churchill Downs Inc., over the needs of thousands of their constituents who are relying on the income of legal skill games,” KY MAC President Wes Jackson said in the statement. “We thank those lawmakers, in both chambers, who voted against HB 594, standing up for Kentucky small businesses in the process.”

Prominent Technologies issued a statement after the vote saying it wouldn’t “give up the fight for” Kentucky small businesses and reiterating its claim the games are legal under Kentucky law.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) thanked lawmakers for coming together to act.

“KEEP, along with many other organizations, worked closely with legislators to ensure that they understood the negative impact of illegal gray machines on families, communities, and on Kentucky’s legal forms of gaming,” the group said.

Timoney initially filed this year’s bill with an emergency clause that would have made the law, and as such, the ban would have become effective immediately. That provision was removed in a House amendment, so if Beshear signs it, it would not become law until 90 days after the session ends on March 30.

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