Can Missouri get a handle on gambling?

By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY – For more than four years, Missouri lawmakers have fallen short in their potentially lucrative quest to find an agreement on a massive expansion of gambling in the state.

From banning the spread of illegal video slot machines in gas stations and bars to legalizing sports betting and allowing slots in truck stops and fraternal clubs, the Legislature has been unable to find common ground.

And now, with three weeks left in the General Assembly's annual session and little movement toward a final resolution, a new wrinkle has emerged.

The head of the Missouri Gaming Commission told the Post-Dispatch Friday that if slot machines are legalized, he doesn't have enough staff to oversee the development and rollout of a regulated market.

"That would be a burden on us," said MGC chairman Mike Leara. "We don't have the staff on the books to do that."

His comments come as Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, was preparing to run legislation in the Senate as early as Monday that would add slot machines and sports betting and eliminate the untaxed and unregulated slot machines that have flooded the market in recent years.

Under the proposal, slot machines would be allowed in fraternal organizations, truck stops and veterans organizations. The number of machines would be capped at five per location and the gaming commission would oversee a centralized system for taxing and regulating the program.

But, as part of the state's response to the pandemic last year, the gaming commission shed more than two dozen jobs to account for a drastic slowdown in revenue when the 13 casinos it regulates closed.

That has Leara questioning how the agency would be able to manage the additional work, unless lawmakers approve a separate budget line allowing him to hire more workers.

"We're not in a position to efficiently manage all those video lottery terminals out there, as I see it," Leara said.

Lobbyists for the gambling industry, the trucking industry and sports betting have been patrolling the halls of the Capitol this year, trying to find an agreement bringing all of the elements of an expansion together.

Legally betting on sports was barred in all states except Nevada until a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed all states to offer it. States surrounding Missouri have legalized the practice and are earning money off taxes and fees generated by people placing bets on sporting events.

Legalized slot machines also have expanded outside of casinos. Illinois now has thousands of machines in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, truck stops and other locations, resulting in a financial hit to the casinos.

If a package is approved, it could bring in money to help pay for the gaming commission's role in regulating the expansion.

But, the Legislature's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 does not include dollars to pay for additional hires or additional duties, meaning any kind of rollout of video gambling or sports betting might be delayed because of a shortfall in manpower.

An analysis of Hoskins' proposal shows the overall package could generate $175 million annually once it is fully implemented in 2027.

But it's not just the Gaming Commission that would be faced with the prospect of hiring more employees.

According to the fiscal analysis, the Department of Mental Health would need to hire more counselors to help problem gamblers.

"Currently, DMH has twelve certified compulsive gambling treatment providers; this number would likely increase over time along with the need for additional compulsive gambling counselors," the report notes. "DMH estimates 25 new compulsive gambling counselors will be needed throughout the state."

In addition, the agency also would need more money for advertising and public service announcements, bringing the total cost to $670,000.

The legislation is Senate Bill 98.