Mess in Missouri

For the fourth time, Missouri state Senator Denny Hoskins (l.) has sponsored a sports betting bill, and pro sports teams and casino operators have signed an agreement to support mobile wagering legislation. Add this to the definition of illegal slot machines and a possible Ozark casino and the state is awash in gaming controversies.

Mess in Missouri

Six Missouri professional sports teams and existing casino operators recently signed off on the first-of-its-kind agreement in the U.S. to support legislation allowing statewide mobile wagering to be tied to existing gaming locations. The teams are Major League Baseball St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, National Hockey League St. Louis Blues, Major League Soccer St. Louis City Soccer Club, NFL Kansas City Chiefs and National Women’s Soccer League Kansas City Current. Under the agreement, each team would be entitled to one mobile platform but not a retail location.

Casino operators would be entitled to three skins per property, capped at six. Penn National Gaming, owner of Barstool Sportsbook, and Caesars Entertainment each own three properties, and under the agreement, each would get six skins. Boyd Gaming, Century Casinos and Affinity Gaming have two retail properties each and Bally’s has one.

State Senator Dan Hegeman and state Senator Tony Luetkemeyer both have filed bills including the pre-established framework. Hegeman’s SB 1046 and Luetkemeyer’s SB 1061 call for a $50,000 application fee for retail licenses and $100,000 for digital licenses; allow a “sports district” around any professional venue; allow the use of official league data on Tier 2 bets; and set the sports betting tax rate at 10 percent. The Missouri Gaming Commission would regulate sports betting under both bills.

In addition, state Senator Denny Hoskins is trying for a fourth time to legalize sports betting in person at the state’s 13 casinos and online via those casinos.

“Hopefully we can get something passed. There are 30 states with sportsbooks. We have all the stakeholders on the same page,” he said.

Hoskins’ bill would tax net revenue at 21 percent; however, online sportsbooks would not pay the $2 fee charged per on-site player. That fee, imposed when casinos were authorized along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, is split between the Missouri Gaming Commission and the casino-host communities; any surplus in the state’s share above the cost of operating the commission goes to veterans and other programs.

However, the Missouri Gaming Association, which represents the state’s gaming industry, wants a lower tax rate than 21 percent on sports betting. MGA Director Mike Winter said, “What you have to keep in mind is that sports betting is a small margin business. If taxes and other fees are excessively high, it will limit our ability to be competitive with illegal bookmakers.”

Missouri lawmakers also are continuing the debate over what is and what is not an illegal gambling machine. The Senate Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee recently held a hearing on state Senator Dan Hegeman’s bill to ban so-called pre-reveal games that have proliferated throughout the state. Many prosecutors are reluctant to file charges against the games’ vendors, although several prosecutions are pending and at least two have resulted in guilty verdicts.

At the hearing, Hegeman said he doesn’t believe legislation is needed for prosecutors to act. He noted a gambling company was convicted and fined and had their machines destroyed in Platte County last year.

“The conviction, lack of appeal and destruction of games in Platte County have taken away any impression that these games are legal,” said Hegeman, who has admitted, “I am not a big fan of gambling. I just go back and forth.”

However, lobbyist Tom Robbins said Hegeman’s bill would put his client, Torch Electronics, out of business. He said Torch games are legal because they “reveal” if a player will win the next game before they make another bet.

“Our games are not gambling devices because they are not games of chance,” Robbins said. He explained the games declared to be illegal in Platte County required a player to deposit money before they found out if they’d win or lose.

But state Senator Bill White said, “It is a rather loose and fictitious argument to say this is not a game of chance. People who sell pot could be considered a small business and it is illegal under our statutes.”

Torch faces prosecution in Linn County for felony promotion of gambling and is suing the state in Cole County Circuit Court to get a judicial declaration that their games are legal. The company also gave $350,000 in June into six political action committees connected to its lobbyist, Steve Tilley, a former House speaker and close associate of Governor Mike Parson.

Robbins, who works with Tilley at Strategic Capitol Consulting, told the committee Hegeman’s bill “is drafted, designed and targeted to put a single, family-owned business out of business.” He said besides targeting Torch, it would strip liquor licenses from retailers that offer the machines, forcing layoffs at those businesses.

An estimated 20,000 illegal gaming machines operate in Missouri; they pay no taxes and are not held accountable for returning a set minimum to players.

Winter said the Missouri Gaming Association supports Hegeman’s bill and opposes any attempt to replace the pre-reveal games with video lottery devices. “We have been consistent over the last few years that we are opposed to any expansion of the video lottery terminals around the state, nor do we believe that legalizing illegal machines is a good idea.”

On the subject of video lottery, Hoskins also is sponsoring a bill that would allow the Missouri Lottery to expand video lottery terminals in truck stops and veterans and fraternal organizations, plus allow pull-tab games in all lottery retail sites. Players could bet from one cent to $5, with prizes capped at $1,000. Hoskins’ bill would prohibit any company convicted of violating state gambling laws from becoming an authorized vendor of video lottery games; that provision would exclude Torch Electronics if it loses the criminal case in Linn County.

Also in Missouri, the Osage Nation is seeking to establish a casino at the Lake of the Ozarks. Tilley is the tribe’s lobbyist.