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Sports Wagering Bill Remains Mired in Missouri Senate Split Over Gambling Expansion Leaders see options narrowing for passage as session enters final five weeks before adjournment

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Above image credit: Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, chats with Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, and Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence as the Senate's secretary opens up a role-call vote. The vote unanimously appointed Rowden president pro tem of the Senate. (Annelise Hanshaw | Missouri Independent)
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3 minute read

Ladbrokes, the London gambling house where bets can be placed on anything from badminton matches to whether Ron DeSantis will be elected vice president in 2024, isn’t offering odds on Missouri adopting sports betting.

But the top Republican and Democrat in the state Senate agreed last week that the chances are slim with only five weeks remaining in this year’s session. That pessimistic assessment was made the morning after the chamber spent eight hours arguing about how and whether to expand gambling in the state.

As in each year since state-regulated sports wagering became legal nationally, the Senate is fractured between those who want sports wagering, those convinced gambling shouldn’t be expanded without also legalizing video lottery machines and those who think both proposals are a bad idea.

When the Senate voted on an amendment to sports wagering legislation last week that would have allowed video lottery terminals at truck stops, veterans and fraternal halls, the vote on both sides was bipartisan —  three Democrats and eight Republicans in favor while 13 Republicans and eight Democrats were opposed.

The underlying bill was laid aside soon after.

“The path is increasingly dim,” Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said Thursday. “But I will also say that I think getting to a vote on the (video lottery terminal) stuff was always a problem in the past. So the ball moved forward a little bit on that. Is it enough? I don’t believe it is.”

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said odds are “not good, unfortunately” for sports wagering. He assigned the House-passed measure to the Senate Appropriations Committee and said he anticipates a hearing will take place before lengthy sessions on the House-passed budget.

“My assumption based on previous actions in that committee is that (video lottery terminals) won’t be a part of it when it comes out, so I’d say the House bill gets to the Senate floor,” Rowden said. “What happens there, I have no idea.”

Because the Senate took no vote on the overall bill as it stood when debate ended, it isn’t viewed as a chamber position that could be overlaid on the House version so negotiations could begin over the differences.

And even the vote on video lottery terminals shouldn’t be taken as a final verdict, said Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg.

Hoskins filed a bill allowing both sports wagering and video lottery terminals and has been adamant throughout the session that the two should move together.

The video lottery amendment defeated in the Senate was a limited plan that allowed only three games at each location. It excluded bars and did not address the regulation of thousands of machines currently in place in convenience stores and other locations that pay cash prizes to players.

“I wouldn’t read a lot into that vote,” Hoskins said.

The Senate is splintered into small groups on gambling issues, Hoskins said.

“I am trying to thread the needle,” he said. “Some want a sports-book-only bill. Some want a video-lottery-only bill. Some don’t want any expansion of gambling at all. And some want to work on unregulated VLTs. My colleagues are all over the place.”

In the House, the sports wagering bill passed 118-35, with 32 of the opposition votes coming from Republicans.

The official GOP position is to oppose the expansion of gambling, Rizzo noted during his Thursday news conference.

“There are some people out there that are trying to work through the process,” he said. “But you do have a handful that could make a difference that just will not be on board with any sort of expansion of gaming due to the Republican Party platform.”

The House-passed bill would enact the proposal advanced in each of the past two sessions by casino operators and major professional sports teams. It splits the market, including an exclusion zone around arenas where only the team-branded platform could advertise, and provides lucrative write-offs for promotions like free bets. 

The tax rate on the net winnings after those write-offs would be 10%, less than half the rate casinos pay on the net winnings at the 13 licensed casinos.

During debate in the Senate, the tax rate was bumped to 15% and the chamber voted to add additional costs to casino operations.

One of the vestiges of the original law authorizing casino gambling in Missouri is the boarding fee of $2. It is paid for each person who enters the casino and again when that person remains on the gambling floor beyond two hours.

The fee is split between the cities that host casinos and the Missouri Gaming Commission, with any surplus in the state share paying the cost at state veterans homes. Casino admissions have declined about 30% since fiscal 2018 and the funds available to veterans homes have been supplemented in recent years with general revenue.

Legally, the casinos could charge that fee to gamblers but instead have absorbed it as a cost of doing business.

First imposed in 1992, on Wednesday the Senate voted to double it and apply it to sports wagering transactions, to be paid when a person logs in to their account. The amendment from Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, would index the fee for future inflation.

The inability to reach agreement on sports wagering and small stakes video games has become absurd, Rizzo said.

The video games are in thousands of locations already so the best step is to regulate them and make sure players have a fair game, Rizzo said. The moral objections, he said, seem unrealistic when Missourians can smoke marijuana, gamble at casinos and buy as many lottery tickets as they please.

“But you’re saying I can’t bet 50 bucks on the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl next year or the Cardinals to win the World Series this year,” Rizzo said. “And the average person is exactly right. It makes no sense.”

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature in Missouri. This story first appeared on the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.

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