Missouri lawmakers continue to struggle with what to do about legal sports betting. But late Wednesday night, they made a decisive determination on the future of legal video lottery terminals in the state.
The Senate voted down a legal VLT amendment that was pitched as an addition to SB 30, the sports betting bill that would allow for statewide digital betting with platforms tethered to casinos and professional sports teams. The vote was 20-11 against legalizing the gray machines that have proliferated around the state.
The vote came after eight hours of debate, and shortly thereafter, a sports betting amendment that would increase the amount of funding directed to problem gambling initiatives from $1 million to $10 million was offered. Missouri Senate floor proceedings are available via audio stream only, so it can be difficult to identify who is speaking. But before any debate or vote happened, Sen. Denny Hoskins, architect of the VLT amendment and champion of legal VLTs, asked into a hot mike, “Are you pulling this or am I talking for three more hours?”
Senate President Caleb Rowden then laid the bill over at the request of another senator and adjourned for the night.
The decision means that the issue of legal wagering is still very much alive. A coalition of casinos and pro sports teams are behind the pair of bills that have already passed the House, as well as SB 30, which is sponsored by Tony Luetkeymer. The coalition was formed two summers ago and has been working with Luetkemeyer and his counterparts in the House on a bill that would result in an open, competitive market with a reasonable tax rate, about 30 platforms, and manageable fees.
During the give-and-take when the bill was being drafted, casino operators agreed to buy official league data at “commercially reasonable” rates and professional sports teams agreed not to have retail casinos. There were other concessions on both sides that have resulted in getting sports betting proposals through the House for two consecutive sessions. After Wednesday’s session, it’s likely that stakeholders will be willing to negotiate on the tax rate — currently set at 10% — and licensing fees.
Filibuster included reading of Reagan biography
The sticking point on the legislative side has been the legalization of VLTs, an issue that Hoskins has been pushing for for five sessions. After his SB 1, which tied legal wagering to legal VLTs, was killed in committee, the issue seemed moot for this session, and even stakeholders were surprised Wednesday that he called for a vote on SB 30 and then tried to amend it to include VLTs.
During the discussion, amendments to the VLT amendment were offered, including one that would limit the number of machines that would be allowed at convenience stores, truck stops, and the like to three. The amendment to the amendment passed, though the original amendment did not.
@DLHoskins I, like thousands of Missourians thoroughly appreciate you holding #sportsbetting hostage until your VLT bill gets passed. I wish there was a way we could figure out how many millions of dollars are going to neighboring states that you are costing Missouri.
— Jake Neely (@j_neely_stl) April 6, 2023
The overall debate was drawn out, and while there appeared to be some effort at finding middle ground — amendments to increase the tax rate from its original 10% to 15% and add a fee to users for each two-hour wagering session were approved — the conversation was mostly about which side could outlast the other.
A dozen amendments were offered Wednesday, and among those that failed were ones that would have extended the right to have legal wagering to the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks and Major League Rugby’s St. Louis Knights and send the decision to expand gambling to voters.
Hoskins put together a cadre to help his cause, and that group did everything from reading three chapters from a Ronald Reagan biography to sharing stories about the history of the B-52. One senator found time to bash neighboring Kansas, which legalized last year and launched wagering platforms in September 2022, during a story about how the Spirit of Kansas B-52 went down (all crew members safely ejected) after takeoff in Guam in 2008 and saying, “Perhaps we shouldn’t have named it after Kansas.”
Senate looks like ‘idiots’
There were also several distasteful moments during debate, like when another senator said he had a “humorous” story about how lottery winners are often in worse financial situations five years after winning than before.
The gist of the story was that a man who won a “significant” amount of money used some of it to put down payments on houses for family members, after which the family members ultimately lost the houses and the man ended up in financial duress. There were also unsubstantiated tales of how, in one county in Missouri, people have been shot over gambling and Bingo often “ends in divorce and bankruptcy.”
Missouri's ban on sports betting is an outdated, patronizing, nanny-state policy.
Rowden is right, it's past time to get this done, #MOLeg. Please do so. We are not too stupid to be free. https://t.co/QPX2fSJ9ir
— Jennifer Bukowsky (@esqonfire) April 6, 2023
At one point, Rowden implored his peers to find a solution because he felt the body looked like “idiots.” The only other state that has struggled as mightily to legalize sports betting is Georgia, where the session closed last month without approval. Five years after the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was overturned, seven of Missouri’s eight border states have legalized some form of wagering.
Missouri lawmakers have spent five sessions trying to come to a consensus. Wednesday night’s VLT vote and the eight mostly wasted hours could cause Senate leadership to punish Hoskins by withholding votes on other issues that are important to him. Or it could convince Senate leadership to offer Hoskins something of value to get him to stand down.
In 2022, Hoskins filibustered to kill legal wagering, and it appears his stance hasn’t changed. The Senate is clearly becoming frustrated, but only a deal will break the impasse.