Missouri Sports Betting Hearing Underscores Conflict with Video Lottery Terminals
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images. Pictured: Missouri State Capitol.
Missouri lawmakers, casinos and professional sports teams largely support sports betting legislation, but the prospects for legal wagering still depend on the debate surrounding video lottery terminals.
A Senate committee hearing on Tuesday reaffirmed the ongoing struggle between the casino-backed sports betting bills and a separate effort to legalize video lottery gaming terminals, or VLTs. The machines are widespread in neighboring states such as Illinois but remain highly controversial in Missouri and are opposed by anti-gambling groups, as well as the state casino industry.
Missouri Gaming Association Executive Director Mark Winter touted a casino-backed bill sponsored by Sen. Caleb Rowden during Tuesday’s hearing that would allow the state’s 13 casinos to open retail and online sportsbooks. He was challenged repeatedly by Sen. Denny Hoskins, the most prominent VLT advocate in the Senate.
Hoskins asked Winter pointed questions about online sports betting for more than 20 minutes during Tuesday’s Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, touching on geofencing concerns, problem gambling, revenue reporting and a host of other issues. Winter and several other witnesses backing Rowden’s bill answered most of Hoskins’ questions during the hearing, but it showcased the sizable rift between casino sports betting backers and the VLTs.
The state’s 13 casinos vehemently oppose legal VLT machines, fearing it would diminish patronage to their facilities, all of which are located on either the state’s western or eastern borders. The casinos say revenues lost to VLTs would likely outweigh any gains from legal sports betting.
Sports betting advocates have argued new revenue potential justifies sportsbook legalization, but VLT backers note the machines, which could be placed within certain truck stops, fraternal organizations and bars, would likely generate even more tax money than even statewide mobile wagering. Missouri already has thousands of largely unregulated “grey” VLT machines that create no government taxes.
“Sports wagering is already happening. We might as well legalize it,” said Hoskins, who has introduced both a 2021 VLT bill and a separate sports betting bill. “That’s my argument for video lottery terminals as well.”
Leagues Also Weigh In
Should Missouri legalize sports betting, it will also have to bridge major divides between would-be sportsbooks and the competitions they accept wagers on.
Representatives from the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues and Kansas City Chiefs testified in support of a competing proposal sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer. Under Luetkemeyer’s bill, leagues would receive compensation for official league data on live or in-play betting and would have rights to restrict certain bet types. Luetkemeyer said he was also working on a substitute measure to create “entertainment zones” around six professional sports facilities in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Opponents for so-called “data fees” see it as an extra tax on what is already a low-margin offering. Rowden said he didn’t want to create an artificial additional cost burden within a free market if he didn’t have to under his bill, but said he had spoken with league officials and was “open to conversation.”
“I’m much less interested in the minutia and the details. I’m much more interested in getting something done,” Rowden said.
Missouri lawmakers must now consider not just how to balance league and sportsbook interests, but the far more consequential divides between two major new gaming entities.
Since the casinos would rather keep the status quo of no sportsbooks and no VLTs than legalizing both, it could tank legislative efforts as long as the machines are still under consideration, despite bipartisan, bicameral sports betting support in the statehouse.
Conversely, Hoskins has pushed for VLTs during each of the past four sessions and there’s no indication he’s willing to pull his legislation, especially as the state is under increased pressure to find new revenues.
Hoskins’ VLT bill was heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee last week but has not advanced to a full floor vote. Tuesday’s hearing in that same committee touched on just two of the six sports betting bills introduced this legislative session and none of the other four standalone sports betting bills, including Hoskins’, have passed out of committee.
There’s no firm timeline for the legislature’s next action on either sports betting or VLTs.