Director of Content and Engagement, Commonwealth Policy Center
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As citizens of Kentucky, we rely on our elected officials to protect us and govern wisely. A bill that has been proposed runs in opposition to those principals. HB 137, if passed, would legalize sports gambling in Kentucky and has been touted by supporters as the financial solution to Kentucky’s debts. The veil of sports gambling’s financial benefit is thin and on the other side is the dark reality that Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens will be the ones hurt by this legislation. Sports gambling, if legalized, would be a poverty tax that takes advantage of those most susceptible to addiction. Debt.org, a debt relief organization, reports that 23 million Americans annually go into debt as a result of gambling at an average obligation of $55,000. These statistics are jarring as only 11 states have legalized sports gambling and only 18 states have commercial casinos according to USA Today.

Oregon is the closest state to Kentucky in population size that has legalized sports gambling. In Oregon, the state lottery created its own sports betting app without approval by the Oregon Legislature, a move which was openly criticized by a bipartisan group of legislators. The basis for this group of Oregon legislators’ criticism highlights the dangers of legalized sports gambling in Kentucky as well: that legalizing sports gambling could lead to widespread gambling disorders without delivering on its promises. For example, the Oregon State Lottery boasted projected annual earnings of around $100 million each year (reported by Legal Sports Report).  The sports app “Scoreboard” launched by the Oregon State Lottery in October 2019 brought in $2.8 million in revenue in the final three months of 2019, which equates to just over $2.5 million in estimated state tax revenue. Extrapolating that projection over twelve months instead of three would place the projected state tax income from legal sports gambling at approximately $30 million or only one-third of the Oregon Lottery’s initial $100 million projection.

This misplaced optimism about sports gambling’s economic upside is not new. For years advocates of expanded gambling have touted the potential economic benefits only for the projections to fall substantially short of their projections. We can chalk it up to “oops” or to “some money is better than no money,” but that would be ignoring the thousands of citizens put at risk of developing gambling addictions and/or massive amounts of gambling debt. The primary responsibility of those who govern is to maintain the safety and prosperity of their constituents. Expanding gambling fails on both of these accounts.