JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The odds that Missourians will be able to bet on their favorite football or baseball team later this year are dwindling, and it comes back to regulating slot machines.
There are less than two weeks left in the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers will adjourn indefinitely on May 13, and each time the clock ticks, the chances of legalizing sports betting in Missouri get smaller and smaller.
“I’m always optimistic and try to be optimistic, but I think the chances are pretty slim right now,” Sen. Denny Hoskins (R-Warrensburg) said when asked if he thinks sports betting passes this session.
The Missouri House approved the legislation back in March for anyone 21 and older to place wagers online or inside sports venues and casinos on college and professional sports teams. The lower chamber’s version was an 8% tax on every wager. Over in the Senate, members can’t find a path forward.
“If it was an easy answer, we would have done it already,” said Sen. Dan Hegeman (R-Cosby), the sponsor of the legislation. “Whether you like it or not, sports betting is happening in Missouri and will continue to happen in Missouri, whether this bill passes out or not.”
Back in 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law against sports betting. Since then, more than 30 states have legalized it, including Illinois, Iowa, and Arkansas.
A big point of contention is video lottery games like slot machines. A priority for Senate President Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan) over the years has been to get rid of unregulated illegal slot machines that have been popping up in gas stations. Lawmakers call them “grey” machines.
“I have stopped many times on I-70 to go home, to use the bathroom at a gas station, and a lot of time they aren’t gas stations. They are gambling halls, and there are no regulations and no rules,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo (D-Independence). “I do not want kids to have to go into gas stations after basketball practice and pass VLTs with someone sitting on an oxygen tank smoking a cigarette.”
Hoskins said with these “grey” machines, there are no consumer protections.
“If it says you win two out of every 100 times, you just trust the company that someone is winning two out of every 100 times,” Hoskins said.
He has previously said there are anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 of those “grey” machines in the state.
In the Senate’s version of the bill, 5,000 video lottery games would be allowed in the state with no more than seven per location in truck stops, fraternal and veterans clubs, and the entertainment districts around the six sports venues where the state’s professional teams play. It also increases the wagering tax to 10%.
“They have to be in a separate, enclosed room and that room is under consent video surveillance, it’s connected to a centralized system and only 21 and older can be in that room,” Hoskins explained.
Shortly after the debate started, an amendment offered by Sen. Mike Bernskoetter (R-Jefferson City) would remove those lines from the bill, doing away with all slot machines.
“My only concern through the whole sports, machines, no machines, betting, is that my veterans’ associations do not have to lose what they have been using for years and enjoy,” Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder (R-Sikeston) said to Bernskoetter.
“This would do away with those as well,” Bernskoetter said.
Last week, Kansas lawmakers approved sports betting and the governor is expected to sign it, which would mean it would be legal in all of Missouri’s surrounding states.
“It’s frustrating, and I always say that the commonsense stuff in this building usually has the hardest time getting across the finish line just because people feel like they can jab at it,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia). “Might have to move to Kansas City.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas tweeted asking Missouri lawmakers to “get the sports betting deal done or at least allow Missouri cities sitting in four counties with over 500,000 people to elect to opt-in and produce lots of revenue for our teams, businesses, and state tax coffers.”
He went on to say if that doesn’t happen, “we will, once again, lose revenue and people to Kansas.”
If approved, it’s estimated to bring in more than $10 million annually with most of that going to education. Rizzo said the number one question he gets at gathers is if Missouri is going to legalize sports betting.
“I get that question more than any other question when I go to weddings or birthday parties,” Rizzo said. “They all know what I do for a living.”
Under the state constitution, lawmakers have to approve legislation and have it on the governor’s desk no later than 6 p.m. on May 13.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, around 92,000 Missourians are currently struggling with a gambling problem, ranking Missouri 33rd out of 50 states. Last year, there were 4,000 calls and texts to the National Problem Gambling Hotline from Missouri.