While surrounding states go all-in on sports betting, Missouri is at a legislative stalemate
During the past two legislative sessions, the Missouri House of Representatives has passed bills legalizing sports betting in the state. However, its continued failure to advance in the Senate could lead to the issue being decided by voters instead.
Most of the bills passed by Missouri lawmakers and signed into law this past legislative session went into effect on Monday, but one issue that still hasn’t made it through the Capitol is legalizing sports betting.
The Missouri House voted in the past two sessions to advance a bill that would make it legal for people in Missouri to place bets both in person at casinos and online. However, the Senate has not advanced any of the legislation.
This lack of action has led to frustration from lawmakers, casinos, sports organizations and people who now make it a habit to drive across state lines in order to place a bet.
Cameron Basden used to live in Illinois but has lived in the St. Louis area for the past few months. Basden makes his living betting on sports, so every day he drives from Missouri to Illinois to place his bets.
“I probably spend like two, three hours driving a day just to get over there and to get back,” Basden said.
Paul Halfacre, a Florissant resident, only places bets in person as opposed to on his phone. He says seeing states that surround Missouri legalize sports betting makes him wonder why the state is behind on this issue.
“I don't know where the money goes after it gets out of my hands, but it might go back into the community when my money is now going over to the community in Alton or Collinsville as opposed to St. Charles,” Halfacre said.
Brett Koenig, who is behind Let MO Play, which advocates legalizing sports betting, said some of the disappointment is just seeing the dysfunction within the legislature on the issue.
“It's frustrating and feels like something that we should be able to do,” Koenig said.
Missouri lags behind other states
Over 30 states have legalized sports betting, including all but one of the states, Oklahoma, that border Missouri.
Rep. Dan Houx, R-Warrensburg, has worked his legislation through the House the past two years.
“We got it out of the House and then over to the Senate; they kind of just sat on it,” Houx said.
Houx’s bill passed the House with a vote of 118-35. The year before, the vote was 115-33.
Through this bill, sports betting would be legal both in person at the state’s casinos and online, including through mobile apps. People 21 and older would be able to bet on professional and collegiate sports.
Sports betting would not be allowed in person at anywhere other than licensed facilities within a casino.
Houx said it’s shameful that the legislature has not passed sports betting.
“We've got a deep base of great sports teams, although this year, both sides of the state are struggling a little bit on baseball, but you know, people want to bet,” Houx said.
Mike Winter, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Association, said that while casinos would profit from allowing sports betting, a larger benefit is drawing in more customers who are interested in sports betting but wouldn’t normally enter a casino.
“We'll likely not see as much benefit as we do from our casino games, but there will be some benefits, hopefully with our properties, potentially building out sports betting opportunities and specific rooms, and which would attract more patrons to our casino properties,” Winter said.
Drawing in new patrons is also appealing for sports organizations, including the St. Louis Cardinals.
“We feel like it sort of opens up a new demo, where people all of a sudden get attracted to the game for slightly different reasons. And they might follow players, they might follow various aspects of the game that are unrelated to wins and losses, although that's part of it, too,” said Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III.
DeWitt has traveled to Jefferson City multiple times to testify in support of legislation legalizing sports betting. He says it’s frustrating that people are going either out of state to place bets or doing so illegally.
“While the clock ticks, we have all of our surrounding states that have legalized it and regulated it and they're collecting tax revenue from it. And here we are in Missouri, you know, waiting to try to break the logjam.” DeWitt said.
The Cardinals aren’t the only sports organization that wants to see sports betting legal in Missouri. All of the state’s six professional teams have testified in support of legislation in Jefferson City.
A legislative stalemate
Despite multiple groups wanting to see sports betting pass, the issue remains at an impasse in the Missouri Senate.
The roadblock largely has to do with Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg. Hoskins filed legislation legalizing sports betting, including the past session, but wants to include video gambling terminals like those often found at truck stops.
Hoskins said he became interested in legalizing video machines as a way to raise money to aid veterans.
“I was looking for a dedicated funding source to help out our veterans homes and cemeteries. Casino revenue has decreased significantly over the last several years and to the tune that we have to supplement our veterans homes and cemetery budget by about $50 million a year,” Hoskins said. “Passing a sports book only bill would give us zero increase in funding for our veterans homes and cemeteries as well as sportsbook doesn't help out any of our small businesses either.”
According to Hoskins’ bill, those machines would be allowed in veterans and fraternal organizations as well as bars.
Comparing the fiscal impact notes of Houx’s and Hoskins’ bills, allowing both sports betting and video lottery terminals is anticipated to bring more than five times the state revenue as just sports betting.
Hoskins says he thinks it makes the most sense to combine the two topics.
“I think we just need to take care of the overall gaming discussion with one bill,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins has received campaign contributions from organizations and businesses that are pro-video gambling terminals.
Hoskins said it makes sense that organizations and businesses that want video gaming machines legalized would support him.
“This is something that I've been passionate about, about helping small businesses, veteran organizations and most certainly companies that would like to see that happen are going to support those senators that are supportive of that issue as well,” Hoskins said.
Winter said the Missouri Gaming Association has testified against video gambling terminals before, and its position has not changed.
“We've invested billions of dollars in Missouri and the voters have spoken that they want slot machines in certain locations, which are the 13 licensed casinos,” Winter said.
On what will happen next session, Houx says he plans on introducing the same bill.
“Hopefully, we'll be in the top 10 bills that get out of the House in the month of January, you know, let's get them going rather quickly,” Houx said.
However, Hoskins is still waiting for a compromise and said he doesn’t see a path for sports betting without it.
In previous sessions, Hoskins has held up sport betting legislation by filibustering.
“Until the casinos are ready to come to the table and work on a solution and compromise, I don't foresee a path that a sportsbook would pass in the state of Missouri,” Hoskins said.
Matt DiMiceli, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and during football season makes the trip to Kansas a couple of times to make bets, believes sports betting and video gambling should be separate issues.
“In my mind, it should be: Should sports betting be legal or not? Let's vote on it. Should the digital video lottery terminals be legalized? Let's talk about it, and then you can vote however you want. But to tie them together is ridiculous to me,” DiMiceli said.
An alternate route
For DeWitt and the Cardinals, the path forward could mean putting the issue to voters directly if the legislature again fails to act this session.
“I think that what we need to do is create a game plan where we work on an initiative petition process, which is a ballot initiative in Missouri, that would be ready for voters to vote on this issue in the November election of ’24,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt said they the ballot language is still being worked on, but it would be similar to what has already passed the House.
One question for those pushing to pass sports betting through the initiative petition process would be if it’s worth pursuing at all, since Hoskins is term limited after next session.
Hoskins said he doesn’t believe this issue will cease to exist once he leaves.
“I know some people think, ‘We'll just wait Senator Hoskins out, and he's termed out in 2024.’ But I would say there's at least five or six different senators that feel the same way that I do and want to see both VLTs (video lottery terminals) and a sportsbook get passed,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins said he isn’t sure how successful a ballot initiative would be.
“The polling that I've seen doesn't look like a sports book-only initiative would pass with Missouri voters,” Hoskins said.
Hoskins referenced a SLU/YouGov poll published in March that showed 35% approval of legalizing sports betting and 41% disapproval. The poll surveyed 900 likely Missouri voters.
However, DeWitt said they have done some polling, and it looks favorable.
“I hate to make any predictions in something like that," Dewitt said. "But we're optimistic at this point that it's something that Missourians want."
Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.