Spending to lobby Kentucky legislature hit all-time high in 2023, spurred by gambling bills

By: - January 19, 2024 5:50 am

The Kentucky House of Representatives chamber on Jan. 3, 2024 as Gov. Andy Beshear delivered the State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the legislature. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

FRANKFORT — Gambling interests drove lobbying spending in Frankfort to a record level in 2023.

More than 800 corporations, associations and other groups reported spending $24.7 million to influence the Kentucky General Assembly last year, according to data posted Thursday on the Legislative Ethics Commission‘s website.

That breaks the prior record of $22.4 million spent to lobby the 2022 General Assembly.

The record is noteworthy because Kentucky lawmakers convened for only a short legislative session of 30 days in 2023. In 2022 the legislature was in session for 60 days.

A review of the ethics commission’s website shows that the main reason lobbying spending was up last year was gambling legislation.

Primarily a bill to ban so-called “gray machines” appears to have churned the most lobbying spending in 2023.

A group that called itself Kentucky Merchants and Amusement Coalition, which opposed the gray machine ban, reported spending $483,324 — more than any other group — on lobbying state lawmakers last year.

The machines at issue are video games with cash payouts and could be found at clubs, bars and gas stations throughout the state. Their proponents refer to them as “games of skill.”

A group that called itself Kentuckians Against Illegal Gambling, which pushed for banning the machines, reported spending the third-most of any group — $348,763.

The vast majority of the money spent by both groups was for broadcast advertising that aired during the 2023 session while the bill was under consideration.

In the end, the ban on gray machines passed and now is being challenged in court.

In addition to those two groups, myriad other gambling interests spent big on lobbying last year. Pace-O-Matic, the Georgia company that makes the gray machines, reported spending $110,150 on lobbying last year.

In-person sports betting opened across Kentucky on Sept. 7. Churchill Downs in Louisville is one one of the nine racetracks eligible to operate retail locations and partner with operators of sports betting apps.(Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

And race tracks that successfully pushed for banning gray machines and legalizing sports betting spent big on lobbying: Churchill Downs reported $128,090 in lobbying spending; Keeneland, $112,226;  The Red Mile, $89,930; Revolutionary Racing, $81,174; ECL Entertainment, $45,000.

As usual, major business associations, health care interests, electric utilities and energy interests all were among the top lobbying spenders last year.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the statewide association lobbying for businesses reported spending the second-most — $440,030 — for the year.

 Its counterpart in Louisville, Greater Louisville Inc., reported spending $113,427.

Health care entities among the top 20 lobbying spenders were: Kentucky Hospital Association, $265,093; Kentucky Medical Association, $169,420; HCA Healthcare, $142,400; Humana, $123,635; Elevance Health, $122,693; LifePoint Health, $118,480

Utilities among the top 20 were: LG&E and KU Energy, $164,407; East Kentucky Power Cooperative, $118,242; and Duke Energy, $115,819.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed anti-LGBTQ legislation that was enacted in last year’s session, spent $192,084, putting it  among the top 10 in lobbying spending. Other groups in the top 10: tobacco giant Altria, of Richmond, Virginia, $191,598; Kentucky Retail Federation, $168,985; and Kentucky Distillers Association, $168,281.

Other data posted on the commission website show Patrick Jennings was paid the most of any lobbyist in 2023 — $854,258. Bob Babbage, the former Kentucky secretary of state and auditor who has been the top-paid lobbyist many years, was second at $756,283.

The commission’s website shows that 20 lobbyists made more than $322,000 last year for their work trying to influence lawmakers. (By comparison, Gov. Andy Beshear’s annual salary is $174,216.)

Groups that spent the most lobbying in 2023

There are 829 companies, associations and other groups registered to lobby the Kentucky General Assembly. Each must report its lobbying expenses to the Legislative Ethics Commission. According to year-end information posted Thursday on the commission’s website, here are the 20 groups that reported spending the most money to influence the Kentucky General Assembly in 2023:

Kentucky Merchants and Amusement Coalition, Lexington, gambling, $483,324

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Frankfort, business association, $444,030

Kentuckians Against Illegal Gambling, Louisville, gambling, $348,763

Kentucky Hospital Assn., Louisville, hospitals, $265,093

American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, Louisville, $192,084

Altria Client Services, Richmond, Virginia, tobacco products, $191,598

Kentucky Medical Assn., Louisville, doctors, $169,420

Kentucky Retail Federation, Louisville, retail stores, $168,985

Kentucky Distllers’ Assn., Frankfort, distillers, $168,281

LG&E and KU Energy, Louisville, utility, $164,407

HCA Healthcare, Nashville, health care, $142,400

Kentucky Association of Counties, Frankfort, county governments, $140,782

Kentucky League of Cities, Lexington, city governments, $139,553

Churchill Downs, Louisville, gambling, $128,090

Humana Inc., Louisville, health insurance, $123,635

Elevance Health, Cincinnati, health insurance, $122,693

LifePoint Health, Brentwood, Tennessee, hospital, $118,480

East Kentucky Power Cooperattive, Winchester, utility, $118,242

Duke Energy, Cincinnati, utility, $115,819

Greater Louisville Inc., Louisville, business association, $113,427

Top-paid lobbyists in 2023

There are 673 people registered to lobby the Kentucky General Assembly. The groups that employ them must report how much they pay their lobbyists to the Legislative Ethics Commission. According to year-end information posted Thursday on the commission’s website, here are the 20 lobbyists who were paid the most to lobby the General Assembly in 2023. Each of these 20 is a contract lobbyist who works for numerous clients. Along with the name and amount the lobbyist was paid in 2023 are the names of three of their more prominent clients.

Patrick Jennings             $854,258

Clients include Kentucky Hospital Assn., CSX Corp., and AT&T


Bob Babbage                $756,283

Clients include MC Global Holdings, Tyler Kentucky, Underdog Fantasy


Stephen Huffman            $754,000

Clients include Revolutionary Racing, The Red Mile, IGT


Ronald Pryor              $717,900

Clients include HCA Healthcare, LifePoint Health, Kentucky Hospital Assn.


John McCarthy                $681,993

Clients include Churchill Downs, Kentucky Optometric Assn., Kentucky Financial Services Assn.


Sean Cutter                  $607,167

Clients include RAI Services, Expedia Group, Autonomous Vehicle Industry


Kelley Abell                   $581,665

Clients include BrightSpring Health, Dish Network, Kentucky Assn. of Adult Day Centers


Jason Bentley                 $547,684

Clients include RAI Services, Kentucky Distillers’ Assn., LG&E and KU Energy


Chris Nolan                  $541,648

Clients include Mucor, Kentucky Distillers’ Assn., Diversified Energy


Katherine Hall                $491,417

Clients include Kentucky Assn. of Health Care Facilities, New Venture Fund, AT&T


Laura Owens                 $468,000

Clients include Uber, Powerhouse Kentucky, Baptist Health


James Higdon                $466,968

Clients include Merck Sharp & Dohne, Humana, RAI Services


Mike Biagi                    $430,550

Clients include Kentucky Credit Union League, Wellcare Health, Appalachian Regional Healthcare


John Cooper                  $415,852

Clients include Toyota, Kentucky Medical Assn., Kentucky Bankers Assn.


Jason Underwood             $413,450

Clients include Airhub, Caesar’s Digital, United Healthcare


Amy Wickliffe                 $402,049

Clients include Pfizer, Churchill Downs, Gilead Sciences


Trey Grayson                  $375,703

Clients include Academic Partnerships LLC, Lancaster Colony Group, Wellpath


Steve Robertson               $362,927   

Clients include Academic Partnerships LLC, Kentucky County Clerks Assn., Wellpath


Marc Wilson                  $328,146

Clients include Community Choice Financial, Mountain Comprehensive Care, Cincinnati Bell


Karen Thomas-Lentz           $322,542

Clients include EPIC Pharmacies, Swisher International, Kentucky Liquor Retailers

Spending to lobby the Kentucky legislature set a new record in 2023, even though it was a short, 30-day session year. This year’s session will be 60 days. (Getty Images)

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Tom Loftus
Tom Loftus

Tom Loftus is a native of Cincinnati and a graduate of The Ohio State University. His long career in Kentucky journalism includes four years as Frankfort bureau chief for The Kentucky Post and 32 years as Frankfort bureau chief for The Courier Journal. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and a freelance reporter for the Kentucky Lantern.