Going into the 2021 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, the horse racing industry had a goal: Help slot-like historical horse racing machines stay legal. And it was willing to spend big to accomplish it.
Racing companies and industry groups dominated spending on lobbying the general assembly in the first two months of the session, collectively spending more than $200,000.
Senate Bill 120 received final passage Feb. 11 after a week of heated debate. It changed the statutory definition of pari-mutuel racing to include the machines resembling casino slots.
The devices have been a financial boon to the horse racing industry over the past decade, but were ruled illegal by the Kentucky Supreme Court last year.
In the month of February alone, the industry spent $128,312 lobbying the legislature, over half of which came from the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP), a horse racing advocacy group.
Including the month of January, five horse racing tracks and four other industry groups spent a total of $202,267 on lobbying costs, according to records of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.
The highest spending track over the two months was Keeneland with $56,300 — the sixth-highest total of any single organization lobbying the legislature — while KEEP spent $80,626, the fourth-highest of any group.
Screen shot from an Encore Gaming historical horse racing machine.
Most of KEEP’s $66,605 of lobbying spending in February — the most of any single organization — went to $54,524 of digital advertising to support the passage of SB 120.
Elections group, Kentucky chamber top spenders
The single organization leading all others in legislative lobbying spending in the first two months of the session was relative newcomer Secure Democracy, a national nonpartisan nonprofit that “works to improve election integrity” in states across the country.
Secure Democracy spent $91,240 in January and February, but only $4,000 of that on three lobbyists and the rest on political polling.
The polling by Secure Democracy was cited by Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams in his committee testimony for House Bill 574, an omnibus election reform bill that allows three days of early voting, keeps the online portal for absentee ballot requests helps transition counties to paper ballots.
Adams noted in his testimony that the polling showed early voting and the online portal widely popular among Kentuckians, including Republicans — as the bill sponsors attempted to win over skeptical GOP legislators.
While versions of HB 574 passed both chambers by a wide margin, it did not receive final passage Tuesday evening before the governor’s two-week veto period began, though it could pass in the final two days of the session on March 29-30.
Secure Democracy also lobbied for a bill dealing only with expanding the use of paper ballots and a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of persons convicted of certain non-violent felonies, which was never assigned to a committee.
Here are the top 10 spenders on General Assembly lobbying through February:
Secure Democracy — $91,240
Kentucky Chamber of Commerce — $90,092
Kentucky Education Association — $87,833
Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) — $80,626
ACLU of Kentucky — $70,126
Keeneland — $56,300
Altria — $50,549
Kentucky League of Cities — $41,829
Kentucky Justice Association — $35,996
National Council of State Boards of Nursing — $35,685