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Kentucky Republicans Split on ‘Gray Machines’ Ban Bill

Supporters of the so-called ‘skill games’ say they bring in significant revenue for convenience stores and other establishments that host the machines, while opponents argue they could harm the state’s horse industry.

Rep. Killian Timoney
Rep. Killian Timoney speaks in support of his bill banning gray machines skill games from at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Thursday, March 2, 2022.
Silas Walker/TNS
(TNS) — The Kentucky city of Frankfort’s most expensive fight went another round on Thursday night, with a bill to ban so-called ‘gray machines’ clearing a House committee on a divided vote.

House Bill 594, from Rep. Killian Timoney, R- Lexington, would ban the machines from Kentucky. Often referred to as ‘skill games’ by proponents and ‘gray machines’ by opponents, thousands of them have flooded convenience stores, gas stations and bars across the state in recent years – the most popular brand being Burning Barrel by the company Pace-O-Matic.

The bill cleared a vote on the House Licensing & Occupations Committee 13-7, with Republicans split 10-6 in favor, and could receive a floor vote in the House as soon as Friday morning given that it has received two readings in that chamber.

In the month of January alone, groups for and against the bill spent more than $300,000 on advertising to the public – that almost beat the amount spent for that purpose during all of 2022, according to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

For and Against

Timoney, along with others including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, argued that the machines came to the state illegally and that the machines’ continued existence could hurt Kentucky’s horse industry.

A group of industry and small business representatives pointed out that they had asked permission from local prosecutors before entering the state, that the games played on the machines are not games of chance and that the pushback against the industry is fueled by the horse industry’s desire to keep a monopoly on gaming.

Under legislation passed in 2021, the horse industry was granted the opportunity to operate Historical Horse Racing (HHR) facilities, where bettors wager on slot-like games that simulate past horse races.

Dozens of small business owners showed up to the committee meeting to protest the bill. Mike Barley, spokesperson for Pace-O-Matic, estimated that owners of the convenience stores and other establishments that have the machines make about $25,000 to $30,000 per year on them – a vital lifeline during uncertain economic times, he argued.

“The only thing that is clear about this bill is that it’s solely intended to punish the Kentucky small businesses who are seated behind me. Ask yourselves ‘for what’ and ‘for whom,’” Mike Barley, spokesperson for Pace-O-Matic said.

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Ashli Watts testified in support of the bill adding that the machines “pose a threat” to the state’s equine industry.

“We are unabashed supporters, cheerleaders and advocates for our signature industries here in Kentucky,” Watts said. “We have worked really hard to become the horse capital of the world, the bourbon capital of the world, and we don’t want to do anything that could put this in jeopardy. We know that some of these machines pose a threat to the equine industry that you all as legislators have fought so hard to protect.”

Former GOP state representative Bob Heleringer, now a lobbyist who works on behalf of the company Prominent Technologies, said that he’s a friend of the horse industry but that it’s obvious what they’re doing here.

“This isn’t about hurting or helping the horse race industry, it’s about whether or not we’re going to give them a monopoly,” Heleringer said. “How far are we going to go? How far are you going to let them go to crush anyone who they think is a possible competitor?”

Companies like Pace-O-Matic and industry group Kentucky Merchants and Amusement Coalition ( KY MAC) have supported a bill from freshman Rep. Steven Doan, R- Erlanger, that would create a regulatory body to oversee the machines and tax them at 6 percent.

A fiscal impact statement from the Legislative Research Commission stated that the impact of a proposed 6 percent tax on the machines is indeterminate due to the lack of historical data and uncertainty surrounding how many such machines are in the state.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Odell Smith, R- Corbin, has a bill that would legalize a more expansive definition of “electronic gaming” machines, potentially including machines that make no claim to be based on skill. Smith’s bill would tax all electronic gaming machines 26 percent on net proceeds. Smith’s bill, like Doan’s, has been assigned to committee but has not received any readings on the House floor.

Last year, a similar bill from Timoney passed the House and the Senate, but the House did not concur with changes to the legislation made by the Senate.

Timoney told reporters on Thursday that he felt confident that enough votes for the bill existed within the 80-member Republican House caucus, allowing for it to pass without the need to consult the 20-member House Democratic minority.

“The Ad”

Aside from his central role in the battle over ‘gray machines,’ Timoney has been appearing on the television screens of many conservatives in recent days. A mysterious group placed a 30-second ad criticizing Timoney for his vote against a ban on transgender girls in girls sports on Fox News in the Lexington area.

Some observers suggested that the timing of the ad could have something to do with Timoney’s lead role on House Bill 594.

The legislator, who represents much of suburban Southwestern Fayette County and a portion of Western Jessamine County, said he was unfazed by the ad, which represents “an aggressive element” in Kentucky politics.

“I have a lot of thoughts on it, but you know, it’s part of politics. I occupy a space that there’s not a lot of (legislators) where I fall on the political spectrum. My district is very, very unique. Sometimes when you stand out, like I did on that vote last year, you become a target,” Timoney said.

He didn’t comment on who believes funded the ad, which just bought another week on the conservative news network, totaling about $64,000 spent on the effort. It will air on the network until March 10.

Timoney, a former teacher and current administrator for Fayette County Public Schools, said that he believes transgender students should be supported. He said he didn’t vote on House Bill 470, which passed the House with the vast majority of Republicans voting for it on Thursday, because he was preparing for the committee meeting but that he would have been one of the few GOP “no” votes.

“My faith tells me to look out for people who are struggling, and I believe that in society right now, in particular the kids that I work with in schools, our trans kids are definitely in that category,” Timoney said.

Timoney said he’s heard some constituents express disagreement with his views, and that he’s received indications he’ll receive a primary challenge in 2024, but that he’s also felt a “tremendous outpouring of support” after the ad.

“I think there are a lot of people who are looking for people just to stick their neck out for somebody else in America and Kentucky,” Timoney said.

©2023 Lexington Herald-Leader. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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