Beshear signs bipartisan bills, with campaign looming

Mar 31, 2023, 10:40 AM

FILE - Kentucky state Sen. Stephen West talks about a medical marijuana bill during a House Committ...

FILE - Kentucky state Sen. Stephen West talks about a medical marijuana bill during a House Committee meeting on the last day of the legislative session, Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Frankfort, Ky. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear joined with Republican lawmakers to sign historic measures Friday, March 31, that will legalize medical marijuana and sports wagering in Kentucky, calling it an example of divided government working to get the “tough things” done that voters want. (Scott Utterback/Courier Journal via AP, File)

(Scott Utterback/Courier Journal via AP, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear joined with Republican lawmakers as he signed historic measures Friday that will sports wagering in Kentucky, calling it an example of divided government working to get the “tough things” done that voters want.

Facing a reelection campaign that soon will intensify, the governor celebrated with GOP sponsors of the two bills that won final passage in the waning hours of this year’s legislative session Thursday. Beshear, a long-running advocate for both measures, wasted no time in signing them.

Beshear and lawmakers touted the bipartisan support both measures garnered. Democratic support was crucial since Republicans — who hold legislative supermajorities — were divided on the issues.

“It was said, can you — with a Democratic governor and a supermajority Republican legislature — get those tough things, important things, things that Kentuckians really want done,” Beshear said. “And the answer is ‘absolutely.’ Sports betting and medical cannabis are now law here in Kentucky.”

But a reminder of the governor’s strained relationship with the GOP-led legislature soon resurfaced.

After the bill signings, Beshear told reporters that his office will probably become involved in litigation over GOP-backed efforts he sees as weakening executive branch authority.

State Republican Party spokesperson Sean Southard said the governor was reverting to his “old ways, threatening lawsuits against the state legislature.” Beshear has waged repeated legal fights over legislation he said weakened authority in the governor’s office.

Twelve candidates are competing for the Republican nomination for governor in the Bluegrass State’s May primary. Beshear’s bid for a second term is drawing national attention to see if the popular incumbent can win again in the Republican-trending state.

But it was all smiles and handshakes at the bill signings Friday. Beshear thanked the lawmakers for their work getting the medical cannabis and sports betting bills passed, after years of stiff resistance from some of their colleagues. The legislators, in return, thanked the governor for signing the measures.

One bill will allow medical cannabis to be prescribed for a list of conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy, chronic nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder. Smokable cannabis products would be prohibited. A person would have to be approved for a card allowing its use.

“There are thousands and thousands of Kentuckians who just want to be and want to feel better. And this will help them with that,” said Republican Rep. Jason Nemes.

Republican Sen. Stephen West, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it was “probably one of the most-vetted bills in the history of the General Assembly.”

The bill specifies that the state’s medical marijuana program won’t take effect until the start of 2025, to allow time for state health officials to draft regulations to oversee the program.

In the meantime, Beshear said action he took last year to relax the state’s prohibition on medical cannabis will remain in place. Beshear’s order allows Kentuckians suffering from a number of health conditions to legally possess small amounts of medical marijuana properly purchased in another state.

The other measure will legalize, regulate and tax sports wagering in Kentucky. Supporters said it’s estimated to generate about $23 million a year in tax revenue and licensing fees. The measure will lead to regulation of an activity already entrenched in Kentucky, they said.

Republican Rep. Michael Meredith, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it will “move an industry that has been in the shadows and has existed in Kentucky for many, many years into the light — with a regulated and a consumer-protected industry.”

The bill will allow Kentucky’s horse racing tracks to be licensed as sports betting facilities for a $500,000 upfront fee and an annual renewal cost of $50,000.

Participating tracks could contract with up to three service providers for sports wagering services at the track itself, or through online sites and mobile applications. Service providers would have to pay $50,000 for an initial license and $10,000 a year to renew.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will regulate sports wagering operations.

The sports wagering measure generated strong grassroots support among Kentuckians that helped push it over the finish line, supporters said.

“I want to thank the overwhelming majority of Kentuckians, that said very loud every day, that this was entertainment and it was an option that Kentuckians demanded and deserved,” Beshear said.

The same applied to the medical cannabis bill, supporters said. Taking in the bill signing celebration after years of setbacks, Nemes said: “I can’t believe we’re here today.”

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Beshear signs bipartisan bills, with campaign looming