Government & Politics

As Kansas considers sports betting, lawmaker pushes industry-sponsored conference

A Kansas state senator leading a committee looking into sports betting said lawmakers should attend a conference sponsored by the gaming industry and suggested the committee hold off on approving its report to the Legislature until after the event.

A Democratic lawmaker on the committee called the situation “as close as a quid pro quo as I’ve heard of in my five years in the Legislature.”

The Republican chairman rejected the accusation, saying the event is only about information gathering.

Kansas lawmakers hope to advance sports betting legislation in 2019. If passed, you could soon have the ability to legally place bets, even possibly over a mobile app.

But the rules that would apply have yet to be worked out. Will sports leagues get a cut of the action? How much will the state take? And what kind of bets do you get to place? All of those questions remain unanswered.

A special legislative committee met Tuesday to hear from casinos, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball League and others.

The National Council of Legislators from Gaming States also addressed the group. The council’s president, Ohio state Sen. William Coley, invited lawmakers to travel to New Orleans in early January for the council’s winter meeting.

The conference, at Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel, will offer lawmakers time together in a “different, more relaxed environment,” he said. Coley also said scholarships are available to help cover the costs of attending.

Sen. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican who chairs the committee, said it would be great for Kansas lawmakers to attend the conference, and suggested a figure of half a dozen as a goal.

At one point, Estes suggested legislative aides could write a report and that the committee meet after the New Orleans conference to approve it.

“It might be such that they do the report, some of our members, maybe including even yourself, goes down to New Orleans and comes back and then we have a meeting to get together to sign this thing and then report back what we found for the committee’s benefit. Just a suggestion,” Estes said.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said the situation came as close to a quid pro quo as he can remember during his time as lawmaker and called it an embarrassment to the Legislature.

“Let’s all go down to New Orleans on these folks’ tab, and then after we’ve enjoyed their hospitality, we will write the legislation. That is far beyond the bounds of propriety,” Carmichael said.

In an interview, Estes rejected Carmichael’s description of the event.

“It’s not sponsored by any kind of gaming thing. It’s the gaming states and the information they’re going to give is not – it’s going to give the basic stuff: How it all works, why it all works, that sort of thing,” Estes said.

However, the conference is sponsored by well-known names in gaming, including Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International and Scientific Games, which offers a sports betting platform. Sportradar, which provides sports betting services, is also a sponsor, according to the council’s website.

At least five sponsors sell sports betting-related services. Boyd Gaming, which owns Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, also is a sponsor.

The council’s website says a sponsorship allows sponsors to “effectively engage gaming’s decision makers” and support the council’s mission.

On its website, the council says it does not promote or oppose gaming but is primarily concerned with proper regulation of the industry. The council’s programs include balanced panel presentations that include opposing views, the site says.

“NCLGS is not for gambling or against gambling, we’re just for good law and good policy and making sure legislators have all the information they need,” Coley told lawmakers.

The council didn’t immediately respond to an email request for comment Wednesday.

Estes said the conference isn’t trying to sell participants on how states should legalize sports betting. The conference is non-partisan and lawmakers should go to find out the latest information on sports betting legalization, he said.

Estes said he had attended the council’s summer meeting in Cleveland and that he had approached Coley about coming to Kansas to speak. Lawmakers – including Carmichael – need to go for the information, Estes said.

Estes said Carmichael doesn’t know anything more about the issue than anyone else, and from his comments shows that he knows less than others.

“Carmichael needs to go as bad as anybody,” Estes said.

Carmichael said he had been placed on the committee at the last minute to fill in for Rep. Gail Finney, and “I am the first person to say I have not made a decision regarding these issues.”

“But the place where I do not need to be educated is a legislative junket hosted by the gaming industry,” Carmichael said.

The committee was scheduled to meet Thursday and discuss recommendations to the Legislature about sports betting. But the meeting was canceled without the committee having made any formal recommendations.

Estes said the committee may meet quickly before the session starts Jan. 14 to approve a report. The document may help guide the Legislature as it considers sports betting, or at the least provide additional information.

But it appears unlikely the committee will offer specific recommendations on whether Kansas should legalize sports betting, or how it should.

Sports leagues want a percentage of the amount bet on contests. A lobbyist for the NBA, MLB and PGA Tour told lawmakers the leagues want a 0.25 percent royalty -- or 25 cents of every $100 bet. Casinos say royalties to leagues are a bad idea that will make sports betting less economically viable.

And while several sides appear to agree that allowing sports betting on mobile apps is important, lawmakers would need to decide where else to allow sports betting -- whether to allow betting to take places in bars, casinos and convenience stores.

At the hearing, Estes told lobbyists he hopes all sides can reach a compromise before January. If lawmakers can pass sports betting legislation, incoming Gov. Laura Kelly has indicated she supports legalized sports betting.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.