Missouri lawmakers are aiming to take a crack at illegal gas station gambling.
Any establishment housing illegal video gambling machines could lose its liquor license under legislation being brought to the Missouri House of Representatives.
Unregulated gambling machines are illegal in Missouri
According to state law, any Missouri gambling not specifically authorized is unlawful. This includes any gaming machines not located within riverboat casinos. Businesses and companies that produce the machines contend that they exist in a gray area because the machines show players if they’ll win the next game. That argument has not held up in court.
Representative Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, is sponsoring a bill to crack down on illegal video gaming and gambling machines. The Missouri Lottery estimates there are around 14,000 machines in use across the state. They are in gas stations, convenience stores, corner markets and other businesses.
Aldridge calls the machines a “cash grab.”
“We need to hold these stores accountable. We need to have enforcement on them. It is so inappropriate and disgusting.”
Aldridge’s top concern is that underage people have access to these unregulated machines.
Aldridge not alone in opposition to illegal machines
The Missouri Lottery is also strongly opposed to these illegal gaming machines. Lottery officials say the machines take money from the state. The Lottery has urged lawmakers to take action against business owners and companies that produce the machines.
Cities in Missouri that host casinos have also taken issue. They have called for their ban because these machines pull potential customers away from their casinos. Along with the Lottery, they point out that none of the money these machines take in is taxed and redistributed to education and other state programs.
Also, many of these illegal video gambling machines are in lower-income communities. That is a problem that nearly every state deals with. Businesses and gaming companies target lower-income communities because poor people are desperate to make money.
Aldridge, who is Black, emphasized:
“It’s not helpful to communities that look like mine.”
Lawmakers have been unwilling to go after businesses with illegal machines
To lodge complaints against businesses housing illegal video gambling machines, there’s an online portal by the Missouri Gaming Commission. Complaints then go to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for investigation. Some complaints have led to charges in counties where prosecutors are willing to go after the businesses.
So far, the Missouri General Assembly, which is currently led by Republicans, has been unwilling to take on the issue.
Missouri gaming officials and other law enforcement have been unable to stop gaming companies and their vast political network from adapting gas stations, corner stores and bars into illegal gambling halls. That’s not the case in neighboring Illinois. That state legalized and regulated video gaming machines in establishments like the ones above.
Part of the political network behind these popular illegal gambling machines is Wildwood-based Torch Electronics. Major lobbyist Steve Tilley represents the company at the Missouri Capitol. He is a former speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. Through a plethora of political action committees, Tilley has spread nearly $500,000 in campaign funds to lawmakers over the last two years. He has also been raising money for Andrew Bailey, Missouri’s new attorney general, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Parson in November.
Needless to say, Torch Electronics has quite a pull in Missouri’s political system.
Bill would bar penalized owners from running legal gambling venues
If the bill sponsored by Aldridge passes, establishments utilizing illegal video gambling machines would have their liquor licenses stripped. Also, the law bans owners of these businesses from participating in any legalized betting and gambling if lawmakers implement them at a future date. The Missouri AG would work in tandem with prosecutors to bring charges against store owners and operators.
A few weeks ago, Republican state Sen. Denny Hoskins pre-filed legislation to legalize sports betting in Missouri. In addition to legalizing sports wagering, video lottery terminals would also be legal for retail use. The Missouri Gaming Commission would regulate them. Hoskins pointed to the vast amount of money the state could collect from legalized machines, saying:
“Passage of this legislation would bring much-needed revenue to Missouri schools and veterans’ homes. My sportsbook legislation could generate more than $10 million each year, while video lottery terminals would generate over $250 million in new state revenue, which more than makes up the $50 million funding shortfall our veterans’ homes and cemeteries experienced this year. We must honor our commitment to our veterans, and VLTs provide a consistent revenue stream to do that.”