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How we reported this story: The Wichita Beacon relied on publicly available information from company websites and press releases; business registration paperwork filed with agencies in at least five states; legislative documents including hearing testimony, lawmaker voting records and archived video feeds of legislative proceedings; and lobbyist registration directories and campaign finance data available from the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
When Gov. Laura Kelly signed legalized sports betting into law last May, it marked the culmination of four years of lobbying, negotiating and backroom deal-making with those poised to profit in the gambling industry.
Casinos, gaming companies and sports teams were closely involved in the lawmaking from the outset, all while funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of Kansas lawmakers and regulators.
The effort began when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal ban on sports wagering in 2018. Since that year, casinos, sports organizations and their leaders have given at least $300,000 to more than 170 political campaigns in Kansas while advocating with lawmakers for sports wagering regulations they could profit from, a Beacon analysis of campaign finance records shows. Lobbyists hired by casinos gave at least an additional $100,000 in campaign contributions during the same time.
In the end, the industry got much of what it asked for: lower-than-average taxes, geographic restrictions to brick-and-mortar casinos as opposed to lottery retailers, on-site wagering at professional sports events, no so-called “integrity fees” for sports leagues, and sportsbook vendors of the casino’s choice.
Billionaire Phil Ruffin, owner of the Wichita Greyhound Park, got what he wanted in the form of “historical horse racing” machines – similar to slot machines – at his dog park. (A lawsuit against his use of the machines is pending.) Ruffin’s dog park stopped operating after Sedgwick County voters in 2007 voted against allowing slot machines.
So what do Kansans get in return? No one’s really sure. Revenue estimates provided by the state are out-of-date and inaccurate. And the state’s portion of sports wagering revenues was halved during negotiations, to 10% from 20%, in a decision that Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, called “great for casinos, bad for taxpayers.”
The industry’s influence in the lawmaking process was so unrelenting and unfavorable to Kansans that another lawmaker compared the experience to standing in front of an avalanche without knowing how to stop it.
Industry involved in Kansas sports wagering bill from the beginning
The 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling triggered a state-by-state rush to create the legal infrastructure necessary to support what promised to be a lucrative business. Some gambling industry interests were jostling to negotiate regulations before they would have been valid — four bills were introduced in Kansas before the federal ban on sports wagering had been struck down.
In December 2018 following the court ruling, the legislature convened a special committee to explore legislative options for sports wagering before the next regular session began the following January. It was one month after Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Republican Kris Kobach in the gubernatorial election.
Among those in attendance: lobbyists representing each of Kansas’ four state-owned casinos, three professional sports leagues and a sports betting company, all potentially profiting, either directly or indirectly, from legalized sports wagering in Kansas.
Also in attendance: a state senator from Ohio, testifying as a peer but backed by a company that lists the parent companies for two casinos in Kansas among its clients. The Ohio senator even invited Kansas lawmakers on a trip to a casino in New Orleans.
Of the 11 people who provided testimony that day, only one wasn’t from the gaming industry or legislative staff — a lone mental health services advocate who asked that funding for addiction treatment be included in any sports wagering legislation.
A similar roster of attendees appeared in subsequent, bill-specific hearings over the next three years. Since 2018, at least 17 sports wagering bills have been introduced and debated with 141 testimonies given over seven hearings. More than 50 of those testimonies were from gaming industry executives or their representatives. All but one of those bills were eventually abandoned.
Around three years into the lawmaking process, with debate growing more contentious as a growing number of states around the country passed sports wagering laws while Kansas didn’t, weary lawmakers began accusing casinos of dominating the lawmaking process and influencing legislation to their benefit at the expense of Kansans.
“It is my opinion that the casinos will not compromise at this point on any issue because the senate bill was written by them and gave them control of the entire aspect of sports book gaming,” wrote Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, in his February 2021 testimony opposing an early version of Senate Bill 84.
Unpopular concessions nearly killed Kansas sports wagering bill
A year later, Barker would carry the bill through its passage through the House of Representatives, with contentious concessions disliked by many lawmakers, including a late-night, last-minute surprise addition of a provision that funnels 80% of sports wagering revenues into a fund dedicated to building a future stadium for a professional sports team.
“If we can attract another team, that would be good,” Barker said as he introduced the provision to the House of Representatives at 11:30 p.m. on April 1, the final day of the regular legislative session. Barker introduced the measure, which had never had a hearing nor ever appeared in a previous bill, at the request of Republican leadership, he told Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger, D-Lawrence.
The allocation of most of the state’s future sports wagering income to a fund for a professional sports stadium had never been discussed publicly, even in several hours of conference committee negotiations the same day. Twice during negotiations, Barker and Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, exchanged knowing nods and vague mentions of mutual agreement on a policy that was not mentioned aloud or discussed further. But being a packed final day of the regular session, and with the statehouse consumed with rumors of subpoenas against lawmakers and accusations of retribution against the state’s chief ethics officer in the form of an amendment supported by Olson himself, none of the legislators on the committee asked what it was Barker and Olson were in agreement on.
The amendment’s introduction sparked outrage among some lawmakers, including Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita.
“I don’t know what secret games are out there, but I would love to have someone tell me what’s going on,” Helgerson said from the dais in the House chamber. “Games like this are not supposed to be played at the end.”
Helgerson tried to kill the bill by sending it back to the conference committee and was very nearly successful, drawing a rare tie vote in a body that is normally unevenly divided.
Rep. Francis Awerkamp, R-St. Marys, compared the experience of opposing the sports wagering bill to standing in front of an avalanche.
“This is a bill that, from my perspective, was written for the casinos, by the casinos and of the casinos,” Awerkamp said as he addressed the chamber following Helgerson’s motion. “Everything in it is a sweetheart deal for them.”
Shortly after midnight, the bill narrowly passed the House by a margin of 14 votes, in a chamber that often meets the 43-vote margin needed to reach a vetoproof supermajority. A few weeks later, the Senate passed it with similarly narrow margins. When the House passed it again, supporters picked up 10 additional votes.
Who got the most money?
Where power is concentrated, so too were donations: Casinos and sports organizations, along with their owners and operating companies, gave larger sums to executive branch candidates than to legislature candidates, more to state Senate candidates than to House candidates, and more to legislative leadership than to rank-and-file lawmakers.
The industry donated the most to the one person who held veto power over any possible sports wagering law over the past four years: Gov. Laura Kelly, who on the opening day of legalized sports betting in Kansas donned a jacket emblazoned with the logo of Barstool Sportsbook while she placed a $15 bet on the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Super Bowl at the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas. Casinos, sports organizations and team owners gave Kelly’s campaign at least $22,000 between 2018 and 2021. The largest donor, which gave at least $6,000, was Hollywood Casino. The casino shares a parent company with Barstool Sportsbook.
Kelly’s challenger for the governor’s office, current state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, got at least $18,000 in campaign donations from sports team owners, casinos and their management companies from 2018 through 2021, records show. Schmidt’s office was solely responsible for reviewing temporary sports wagering regulations prior to the Sept. 1 launch, after lawmakers exempted the state’s administrative and financial offices from the expedited legal review process.
The industry also gave around $700 more on average each to members of chamber and committee leadership — an average of just under $2,000 total per candidate — compared to their colleagues who were not in leadership positions.
Campaign donations from casinos
Casinos, their sibling companies and managers directly gave Kansas politicians at least $200,000 from 2018 through 2021. Lobbyists hired by casinos gave at least an additional $100,000 in campaign contributions during the same time, but it is not possible to tell from campaign finance data whether any lobbyist donations were given on behalf of specific clients.
Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway
Campaign finance records show that the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway gave over $55,000 to 57 candidates for public office in Kansas. Lobbyists hired by the casino gave $21,000 to 55 candidates across portfolios of all their lobbying clients.
During that time, representatives advocating for the interests of the casino and its parent company, Penn National Gaming, provided testimony to legislative committees at least seven times, legislative committee documents show. Hollywood Casino ultimately got much of what it asked for in the new law, including geographic restrictions on historical horse racing gaming machines to minimize competition, and allowances to use the data provided by their in-house sportsbook.
Kansas Crossing Casino
Owners of Kansas Crossing Casino’s operating company, a group of five Kansas-connected real estate developers, gave at least $69,000 to over 100 candidates across party lines since 2018, campaign finance data shows. Donations made under the casino’s name show at least $9,000 given to 21 candidates. Bruce Christenson, who operates companies out of Houston and Topeka, donated at least $37,500 to 67 candidates. Another owner, Wichita developer George Laham, gave at least $13,500 to 10 candidates through his holding companies. Other partners, who include real estate developer James Walker of Houston and commercial contractor Bruce McPherson of Topeka, together donated at least $4,000 to five candidates since 2018. Companies tied to both McPherson and Christenson, who have a longstanding business relationship, donated at least another $5,000 to four candidates, including identical campaign donations made days apart to Kelly and Schmidt.
Kansas Crossing Casino’s operating company also built Boot Hill Casino in Dodge City. They shared ownership with Butler National Corp. until 2020, when they sold their remaining interests back to Butler. The group still owns hotels and other facilities adjacent to Boot Hill.
Christenson provided testimony to legislative committees at least three times since 2018, and has repeatedly advocated against allowing lottery retailers to serve as sports wagering locations and for limiting mobile sports wagering to apps managed through casinos.
Lobbyists who advocated for Kansas Crossing Casino’s interests on sports wagering during at least four hearings since 2018 donated at least $30,000 to over 30 candidates in that time, campaign finance records show.
Kansas Star Casino
Boyd Gaming, operator of Kansas Star Casino 17 miles south of Wichita, donated $12,500 to eight candidates during a time when the company gave testimony to lawmakers on at least six occasions. The casino’s representatives advocated for allowing casinos to use data vendors other than an official league to settle sports wagers, so long as the vendor has equivalent data; that provision was added to the final law. Lobbyists for Boyd Gaming gave at least $38,000 to 30 candidates in that time.
Boot Hill Casino
Boot Hill Casino in Dodge City gave $2,250 to eight candidates since 2018, campaign finance data shows. The casino’s parent company, Olathe-based aviation company Butler National Corp., has given more than $35,000 to 56 candidates through its architecture subsidiary, campaign finance records show. The company’s lobbyists gave more than $20,000 to 50 candidates. The company provided testimony to legislators at least seven times during that time. Boot Hill Casino’s requests mirrored others in advocating that sports wagering be limited to brick-and-mortar-casinos, including via mobile apps.
Will Sedgwick County get historical horse racing machines?
The new law permits 1,000 “historical horse racing machines” at Wichita Greyhound Park, owned by Phil Ruffin. These machines look and play like slot machines but instead of randomizing play outcomes, determine winners based on previously run horse races. Lobbyists hired to advocate for Ruffin’s portfolio of enterprises urged legislators during hearings on sports wagering to allow for the electronic gaming machines at racetracks. It’s Ruffin’s latest attempt to get some kind of gaming machines at the racetrack since Sedgwick County voters rejected a measure in 2007 that would have allowed slot machines.
But soon after the law was signed, Boyd Gaming sued the state of Kansas for breach of contract, claiming that the proximity of the machines to Boyd-managed Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane violated the noncompetition agreement in its casino operation contract with the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for November.
A few weeks earlier, in one of the final hearings on sports wagering before the law was passed, Ruffin’s attorney provided testimony to the legislature specifically to address the likelihood of a lawsuit. The historical horse racing machine provision in the law anticipated litigation. It includes instructions on how to proceed if a lawsuit is filed, a severability clause that protects the rest of the law should the portion allowing the machines be struck down, and requires the historical horse racing machine facility to pay the state’s court-ordered fees.
Since 2018, Ruffin donated over $50,000 to more than 100 candidates seeking public office in Kansas, including 19 state senate candidates, each of whom he gave between $1,000 and $1,500. Ruffin also gave mostly $500 or less to each of nearly 90 state representative candidates. Ruffin’s lobbyists donated another $4,500 to seven candidates.
WyCo sports facilities will get in-person sports wagering
Under the new law, two neighboring sports facilities in Wyandotte County may eventually have on-site sports wagering at live events, for now.
Kansas Speedway, owned by NASCAR, is the only auto racetrack in Kansas permitted to have on-site sports wagering. Hollywood Casino, adjacent to the speedway, will run the speedway’s on-site sports wagering through Barstool Sportsbook. Penn National Gaming owns both Hollywood Casino and Barstool Sports. The casino has already announced naming rights to the track’s Sept. 11 race – coincidentally the date of the first NFL regular season game played by the Kansas City Chiefs.
NASCAR subsidiary Americrown Service Corp. gave at least $17,000 to more than 40 candidates since 2018. Kansas Speedway, which is also owned by NASCAR, gave another $3,500. While Kansas Speedway did not publicly provide testimony to lawmakers on sports wagering, the speedway is adjacent to and affiliated with Hollywood Casino, which testified extensively in favor of sports wagering legislation.
Next to the speedway is Kansas’ only professional sports stadium for the moment, Children’s Mercy Park, which is owned by the professional soccer team Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting Kansas City owner Greg Maday, through a handful of Missouri-based LLCs registered in his name, donated $18,000 to 20 candidates in Kansas since 2018. Maday gave an additional $6,000 to Kansas gubernatorial candidates during that time. Other owners, including Cliff Illig, Pat Curran and Robb Heineman, altogether gave at least $8,000 to political campaigns.
Sporting Kansas City also gave $1,000 under its own name to Gov. Laura Kelly’s campaign. Jake Reid, Sporting Kansas City’s president and chief executive, twice provided favorable testimony to legislative committees on sports wagering, telling lawmakers that legalized sports wagering would attract fans and provide an entertainment option to draw out-of-state visitors.
Sporting Kansas City has not yet announced on-site sports wagering, but Reid said earlier this year that they are exploring options for the future, and said the organization has an existing relationship with Hollywood Casino.
Marco Schaden contributed to this report.