A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly 2021 Session with State Representative Tina Bojanowski
FRANKFORT – While nearly a decade has passed since the first historical horse racing machines were installed here in Kentucky, it wasn’t until this past week that the General Assembly addressed a simple question at the heart of a years-long court case: “Are they legal?”
Last September, the Kentucky Supreme Court effectively said, “No.” Senate Bill 120, however, is poised to turn that into a “Yes,” after it is signed into law by Governor Beshear, a strong supporter of this plan.
It is vital to point out that it took bipartisan support to reach this stage; without it, a multi-billion dollar business model could have been, quite literally, stopped in its tracks. The ripple effect would have been profound for our signature horse industry.
This is a complicated issue, but it effectively began in September 2011, when the Kentucky Downs racetrack in Simpson County became the first of what are now multiple homes for these slot-like machines. They were authorized by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and have operated under regulations tied to the state’s pari-mutuel wagering law, which has bettors competing against one another for a share of the combined pool. In this case, the outcome of old horse races determines winners.
The Kentucky Supreme Court said these machines did not meet the definition of pari-mutuel wagering, but Senate Bill 120 will make clear that they do.
The debate over its passage was three-sided. Some argued against it on moral grounds, while others said the General Assembly had to act quickly to protect potentially thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars of investment.
The third side supported the historical horse racing machines, but argued it was imperative that the state get a greater share of what has become a very sizable pot.
These machines have brought in about $10 billion since they took their first dollar, and wagers last fiscal year easily topped $2 billion. For perspective, that’s approaching half of what our farmers get for the crops and livestock they sell annually.
Most of the money going into these machines is understandably returned in winnings, but much of what remains is put back into the horse industry. With Senate Bill 120 set to become law, the goal now is to have Kentucky get a greater share for our schools and other needed programs.
Governor Beshear, legislative leaders and the track owners themselves have promised to revisit the formula that directs the flow of this revenue, and I will do all I can to find an equitable solution that ends with all of us being winners.
Although this issue dominated our relatively short work week in the state House, it wasn’t the only one that could have a sizable impact on the commonwealth. My colleagues and I also approved three bills that would go a long way toward improving our collective health, and we’re poised to pass a fourth in the days ahead.
House Bill 183 is beneficial because it would make it possible for Kentucky, especially our rural hospitals, to receive more federal funding through Medicaid.
House Bill 50 would bring more parity to mental health benefits, and House Bill 7 would help communities become “recovery ready” so they are better able to implement and support substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery programs.
A House committee, meanwhile, has approved House Bill 95, which would greatly reduce prescription costs for insulin. The price for this life-saving drug has sky-rocketed in recent years, but a growing number of states has taken steps to keep these costs in check.
Instead of hundreds of dollars for a monthly supply, this bill would limit out-of-pocket expenses to $30. The House passed a similar bill last year, and I hope the General Assembly will do the same in the next few weeks. Kentucky has a high percentage of diabetics, and many are forced to choose between food and medicine, something they should not have to do.
Another bill to make it through our chamber for a second year in a row is House Bill 126, which would raise the felony level for theft and fraud from $500 to $1,000, the first increase in years. This recognizes inflation and would go a long way toward helping reduce our overcrowded prisons and jails.
Early this past week, many of my legislative colleagues and I put our support behind a comprehensive plan that would make needed updates to the state’s unemployment insurance program, which was underfunded and understaffed when COVID-19 arrived last March. Decades-old technology made matters worse at a time when it was needed most.
Our legislative proposal would do such things as strengthen the unemployment insurance trust fund, which would make Kentucky less reliant on federal borrowing during recessions; open more unemployment offices across the state; expand eligibility to help part-time workers and those training for a new job; make it possible for businesses to reduce hours rather than implement lay-offs; and add several new groups of people who would qualify for benefits. Those include victims who are forced to leave their job because of domestic violence or similar situations.
February is Black History Month and I was able to tie my first career as a gymnastics coach and club owner to my current position as a representative when I honored Dianne Durham, the first Black gymnast to win the U.S. Senior National Gymnastics Championship competition. Dianne died on February 4th at the much too young age of 52.
On Tuesday this coming week, the General Assembly will reach the halfway point of this year’s legislative session. Although a handful of major bills have cleared the House and Senate, most are still unresolved.
To share your views or concerns on bills or other matters, you can email me at Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov. If you have a position on a bill, I encourage you to call the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181. This is available during normal business hours each weekday. I’m on social media as well. My Twitter handle is @tinaforkentucky and my Facebook page is State Representative Tina Bojanowski.
You can also read the bills I’ve mentioned and check on votes by visiting the General Assembly’s webpage: legislature.ky.gov. Legislative meetings are broadcast on KET or through the legislature’s YouTube page. Search for “Kentucky legislative streaming” to find those resources.
Take care and stay safe during the upcoming winter storm.