New report highlights possible changes to Missouri gambling

Lawmakers say Missouri will be left behind without sports betting legalized

After months of meeting to discuss topics like sports betting and video gambling machines, Missouri lawmakers are set to release a report on their findings Monday.

State Rep. Dan Shaul, R–Imperial, led the seven-member special committee.

"We have a problem in Missouri with unregulated gaming,” Shaul said. "This isn't something I want to kick down the road for another three or four years because all it's going to do is hurt us on both sides of the aisle."

The committee focused on two issues: sports betting and video lottery terminals or VLTs, sometimes called "gray machines" because of their color and somewhat ambiguous legal status.

"Whether you agree with what's taking place, it's happening,” Shaul said. “People in Missouri have found this gambling and they’re liking it and they’re using it and it’s costing the state millions of dollars.”

It's estimated there are 14,000 VLTs across the state, often popping up in convenience stores.

Platte County officials seized several and are currently prosecuting the state’s first case against them. It’s unlikely, the Missouri Supreme Court would rule on the issue after appeals until late 2021.

"I don't think there's much of an argument to stand on that they're gray,” Rep. Wes Rogers, D–Kansas City, said. “That’s a silly name for something that’s very obviously illegal.”

Rogers is a former Clay County prosecutor and one of two Democrats on the committee, though he says Shaul clearly wanted a bipartisan fact-finding mission.

“He treated with me so much respect and gave me so much latitude during these hearings,” Rogers said.

Rogers fears the gaming machines would likely cut into casinos, which brought in $1.7 billion in revenue last year and employ 6,000 people statewide.

Rogers has four casinos near or in his district.

“My conclusion is VLTs will just shift revenues away from one part of the state to another part of the state,” Rogers said. "There's nobody regulating those things, so we don't even know if the player is getting a fair play on those things."

There's much more agreement from Shaul and Rogers with sports betting, which 18 other states have legalized.

While they disagree over how much money sports betting and VLTs mean to the state, they both believe that if Missouri lawmakers don't legalize sports betting soon, the state will lose big.

“We already are behind. Illinois is doing it, Iowa is doing it, Arkansas is doing it,” Rogers said. “If we don’t legalize sports betting, we will lose revenue to our neighbors and it will cost us jobs, especially in the cities.”

The Missouri Gaming Commission and professional sports organizations like MLB, PGA and NBA disagreed over how much revenue gambling would bring to the state. The gaming commission suggest around $100 million.

The sports groups estimated after a small royalty fee paid to use official data, the state would take in just under $40 million.

Rogers estimates it would be close to Indiana’s take, which is around $50 million.

The question now is what legislation will look like and if lawmakers will approach sports betting and VLTs separately or combine them into a single bill.

Shaul isn't sure yet what he’ll do, but he says gambling is probably simpler to address.

"Either bill is going to have to thread a needle and have a very narrow path to success,” he said. “I think we get left behind on both of these issues if we don’t pass something on both of them this year because we’re losing money that goes directly to education.”

Rogers says if sports betting doesn’t happen soon and VLTs take money from casinos, gamblers from border areas like Kansas City and St. Louis will flock to Illinois and Kansas to bet and hurt the state.

"It really could have devastating consequences. That's not a dramatic prophecy, it's reality,” he said. “Let's do the easy stuff quickly and take our time to do the more complicated things."

Gregg Keller, a spokesperson for Torch Electronics, which has gaming machines in hundreds of locations across the state, says the machines are completely legal, because they're not a game of skill or chance and said lawmakers are just trying to expand government because they feel they’re losing out on money.