Hearings were held Wednesday in the Missouri state Senate Appropriations Committee on three gambling-related bills.
On the surface, the hearings were conducted to inform lawmakers and the public on the bills, and to solicit comment from interested parties. But there was a sense of familiar battle lines being drawn.
The committee heard testimony for and against SB 30 and SB 1 — both of which would legalize Missouri sports betting but with a major addition in SB 1 — as well as a third bill, SB 192, that would legalize wagering at video lottery terminals (VLT). That form of gambling already goes on at some establishments as a “gray area” activity.
Missouri has 13 casinos with the normal array of slot machines and table games, plus a state lottery. However, several neighboring state, such as Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas and recently, Kansas, have launched sports gambling.
What Each Proposal States
SB 30, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, is a pure sports wagering bill that would legalize retail sports betting at the state’s casinos, but more important it would allow for mobile sports betting. The proposal also would create “sport districts” around major sports facilities in the state to allow for betting.
That bill got strong support from just about all the major sports teams most closely affected, including the Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues and others.
SB 1, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Denny Hoskins, would also legalize retail and mobile sports betting but it yokes sports wagering with an expansion of VLTs. That idea would legalize gambling machines in a variety of establishments, many of them small businesses, such bars and restaurants, truck stops, and in fraternal organization establishments.
Therein lies the conflict.
Missouri Casinos Oppose VLT Expansion
The state’s casino operators are opposed to legalizing VLT gambling at establishments all over the state, considering the investments those casinos have made in their properties. Those casinos combined for nearly $2 billion in revenue in the 2021-22 fiscal year and accounted for $153 million in the January Missouri casino revenue report.
On the other side of the debate, small businesses — still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown and the ongoing challenges of a tight labor market for service employees — say they need the VLTs as an added revenue stream to survive.
Complicating the issue further is that Missouri is already filled with so-called “gray machines”, VLTs that have been installed by bars and truck stops. Those operate openly despite a cloudy legal environment.
Some operators of bars and restaurants said they fear that installing “gray machines” could result in legal repercussions that would wipe them out. So they support SB 1, which would clear the air legally and allow for the gambling devices.
Sports Executives Stay Out of VLT Debate
Sports team executives mainly testified they were “agnostic” on the topic of expanded VLTs while supporting the sports gambling portion of SB 1. Again, the state’s casino industry was firmly opposed to allowing what would amount to a more convenient gambling outlet for some gamblers who would otherwise patronize the gambling halls.
For Missourians, this should be a familiar political dance. Last year, it was a similar scenario with the VLT issue working as the death knell for sports wagering in the state Senate.
This year’s SB 30 would allow for each casino, in addition to having an in-person sportsbook, to “conduct sports wagering through up to three individually branded interactive sports wagering platforms.”
Other Differences in SB 1 and SB 30
The tax rate would be 10% and sportsbooks would have to use official league-supplied data to determine wagers. To mitigate problem gambling, $500,000 a year would be dedicated from the Gaming Commission Fund to the Compulsive Gamblers Fund.
Hoskins’ SB 1 mirrors SB 30 in most respects regarding sports betting but dedicates $5 million a year to mitigating dysfunctional gambling.
A far greater difference between the two bills is the inclusion of expanded VLT gambling in SB 1.
The VLT portion of SB 1 calls for a maximum bet of $5 with no payout larger than $1,100 or the maximum amount allowable by federal law before tax withholding is required. Operators would be limited to eight terminals; lottery game operators would be limited to five. Gamblers would have to be 21 and the terminals would have to be in a separate enclosed area with appropriate surveillance.
SB 192, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Karla May, focuses on legalizing VLT gambling. Under that bill, the cost of video lottery game terminal credits would range from 1 cent to 25 cents with a maximum wager of $5. No prize would exceed $1,000.