There’s a battle being waged in the Lake of the Ozarks. And the details of this fight feel like they’re straight out of the popular Netflix series, “Ozark.”
Osage Nation wants to build a tribal casino on the Osage River and has already purchased land to do so.
Missouri, Osage Nation fight for Ozark casino rights
More than a dozen Missouri casinos currently exist — most of them close to or on the Mississippi or Missouri River.
There are currently no casinos located in the Ozarks, unlike the popular Netflix show, “Ozark”. But a fight is on to change that.
On one side, an amendment proposal has been pre-filed by Missouri Rep. Jeff Knight, to allow a state-regulated casino on the Osage River in the Ozarks. On the other side is the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe that wants to build its own casino on the same river.
HJR 23 actually an amendment to an amendment
The casino amendment proposal is HJR 23. It is backed by Osage River Gaming, an investor group with a very specific goal of bringing gaming to the Osage River. The group wants an amendment added to the Missouri Constitution to permit a commercial casino at the popular resort destination in central Missouri.
The constitutional amendment proposed by HJR 23 would authorize excursion gambling boats and floating facilities on the Osage River specifically.
Technically, it’s an amendment to an amendment since Missouri already permitted 13 state-regulated casinos via a previous amendment. That amendment states that casinos are limited to a proximity of within 1,000 feet of the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. Only 13 licenses have been awarded under that law. Most recently, Century Casino Caruthersville embarked on a $20 million expansion project that would reestablish its facility just inland of the Mississippi River.
In simple terms, there is a 25-mile stretch of the Osage River that flows from the Missouri River to the Bagnell Dam. The proposal is asking that that stretch of river be included in the original amendment. This is the second amendment proposal brought to a legislative session. Last year, a similar bill, HJR 87, died in the House.
Osage Nation wants to build massive casino resort
Meanwhile, Osage Nation sees HJR 23 as competition and is trying to block the proposal. The tribe has already purchased land on the Osage River where it intends to erect its tribal casino. Any additional casino builds would only thwart the tribe’s projected profits.
Plans for the new tribal facility include a:
- meeting space
- entertainment space
- multiple restaurants
To build the casino resort, the tribe first needs approval from the US Department of the Interior.
Group behind HJR 23 touts tax revenue earnings
For HJR 23 to become law, it must get through both houses of the Missouri Legislature by a simple majority vote. If that is accomplished, it would be placed on a ballot and voted on by Missouri voters. It would require a vote margin of 50% plus one.
Osage River Gaming argues that a state-regulated casino would bring in millions of dollars in taxes while bolstering the local community. The proposal also includes a bid to add at least one more state-licensed casino in the Osage Beach area — the largest city in terms of population on the 25-mile stretch of the Osage River.
Commercial casino would create hundreds of jobs
The group also points out that its proposal would create hundreds of jobs within the construction and operations fields. Osage River Gaming spokesperson Tim Hand outlined how much money the group thinks would go to the state in a recent opinion piece:
“Using industry models to scale a facility size based on the lake’s demographics, a single casino/hotel would bring at least $100 million in new net revenue to the lake economy and generate $25 million in additional tax revenue. The multi-year construction project would generate between $150-$200 million in revenue and as many as 700 direct jobs with an equal number of permanent jobs once operations commence. Many of the jobs created would be year-round, full time with benefits.”
Hand went on to write that casinos bring in more tax revenue than all businesses in the state combined:
“Missouri’s gaming tax is among the highest in the nation; and therefore, the state generates nearly half a billion in revenue. It is the state’s fifth largest revenue source. The 13 Missouri casinos as a group generate more tax revenue for the state than the other 156,000 businesses combined. A casino at the lake would be by far the single largest source of tax revenue at both the state and local level.”
Tribal casino would generate millions for Osage Nation
Whereas a commercial casino would generate millions of tax dollars for the state, a tribal casino does the opposite.
An Osage Nation casino build would kill HJR 23, removing the tribe’s biggest competition and allowing them to make tax-free money hand over fist without oversight or regulation.
The tribal casino would be deemed a sovereign establishment and thus not regulated by the state. The state could not tax its revenue.
Real-life casino fight reminiscent of TV show
This is where the story begins to mirror “Ozark.” In the Netflix series, lead character Marty Byrde begins the story as a Chicago-based financial advisor, but he quickly falls into laundering money for a drug cartel via a series of chaotic events. Eventually, Byrde’s partner is killed for skimming money.
Byrde convinces the cartel he can pay it back by laundering money in the Ozarks. To speed up this laundering process, Byrde opens a riverboat casino after paying off and blackmailing government officials and regulators.
Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that either casino proposal is linked to any criminal activities. Nevertheless, some opponents have expressed a lack of oversight on the tribal proposal as a concern.
Osage Nation donated $100,000 to groups in the Ozarks
To pursue its goals, the Osage Nation tribe is actually using similar tactics Byrde used on the show.
Byrde and his wife donated money to different community institutions in order to garner favor from those in power. The Osage Nation has made $100,000 in donations to seven Lake of the Ozarks organizations. Again, there is no evidence that the money is a quid pro quo. The similarities to the show, however, are eerie.
One particular quote from “Ozark” outlines just how easy it is to launder massive amounts of money. Byrde explains:
“Okay, money laundering 101. Say you come across a suitcase with $5 million bucks in it, what would you buy? A yacht? A mansion? A sports car? Sorry, the IRS won’t let you buy anything of value with it. So you’d better get that money into the banking system. But here’s the problem, that dirty money is too clean, looks like it just came out of a bank vault. You gotta age it up, crumple it, drag it through the dirt, run it over with your car, anything to make it look like it’s been around the block.”
“Next, you need a cash business, something pleasant and joyful with books that are easily manipulated, no credit card receipts, etc. You mix the $5 million with the cash from the joyful business, that mixture goes from an American bank to a bank from any country that doesn’t have to listen to the IRS. It then goes into a standard checking account, and voila, all you need is access to one of over three million terminals because your work is done. Your money is clean. It’s as legitimate as anybody else’s.”
Osage Nation can use land how it sees fit
Despite these concerns being very real and entirely valid, the Osage Nation has a legal right to build its own tribal casino regardless of any pending concerns. There is nothing intrinsically illicit about the Osage Nation choosing to use its own land in that way and to do so morally and ethically.
To assume this establishment would inherently attract criminal activity is nothing more than exactly that: an assumption. Legally speaking, assumptions mean nothing.
Regardless of how this battle turns out, it’s a fascinating episode of life imitating art.