Despite Sports Betting Legislative Fail, VLTs Still An Issue

Written By Adam Hensley on June 28, 2024
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Video lottery terminals, or VLTs, have been a major roadblock in attempts by Missouri lawmakers to legalize sports betting.

But the problems with VLTs go well beyond the capitol in Jefferson City.

There have been more than 200 complaints concerning VLTs so far this year, and there’s evidence that children are gambling on the machines.

VLTs have become an issue that no one wants to address, including the Missouri attorney general, local prosecutors, or state lawmakers.

Will another lawmaker take up Hoskins’ crusade?

One lawmaker in particular has pushed to regulate VLTs in Missouri for several years. Sen. Denny Hoskins has been crusading for VLT legalization during the last three sessions of the Missouri General Assembly. In fact, he has used the issue to thwart all efforts by lawmakers to legalize Missouri sports betting.

That won’t happen again in 2025, as Hoskins has termed out. But others could take up his sword.

In the last legislative session, Rep. Crystal Quade introduced House Bill 2835, which would have legalized and regulated both sports betting and VLTs. Revenue from VLTs would have been taxed at 33%.

However, that bill, along with Hoskins’ bill to regulate VLTs, didn’t make it out of committee.

AGs refuse to offer opinion on VLTs

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Baily has been heavily criticized for not offering an opinion on the legality of VLTs. He’s taken the same “hands-off” approach his predecessor; Sen. Eric Schmitt, took when he was AG.

When running for AG, Bailey accepted more than $25,000 from pro-VLT political action committees.

Bailey has said taking a stance on VLTs is not his job.

“That is an issue that’s up to local law enforcement investigators and local prosecutors.”

Missouri Gaming Commission can’t regulate VLTs

For the most part, local authorities are not tackling the issue.

Missouri Gaming Commission (MGC) spokesperson Michael Winter told KSDK that he’s upset that local law enforcement isn’t taking the initiative.

“It’s very disappointing local prosecutors aren’t taking action. The Missouri Gaming Commission has indicated they believe these or similar machines are illegal. The Missouri State Highway Patrol has done numerous investigations, seized illegal machines and referred cases to prosecutors. Yet many are not filing charges and taking these cases to trial, which is leaving Missourians unprotected.”

MGC Chairman Jan Zimmerman told KSDK that the commission lacks the authority to go after VLTs.

“We are bound by the existing laws within the state, and prosecution is a determination made by the local prosecutors on a case-by-case basis.”

Children seen playing VLTs

KSDK discovered that children had been seen gambling on the slots-like machines.

Because VLTs are unregulated, there is no age limit. By comparison, Missouri casinos require patrons to be at least 21 years old. Since there is no regulatory body over VLTs, there’s no one to prevent children using the machines.

That lack of oversight could lead to problem gambling at a young age.

Representatives of the organization NoMoSlots provided KSDK with a number of photographs showing children using the machines.

According to the American Gaming Association, these images show one child using a machine in Columbia. Another photo shows two children gambling in a gas station in Kirksville. Other images depict a child using a VLT machine in a sporting center in Stafford. All of these photos were taken last year.

Missouri resident Sean Crosier, 19, confirmed to KSDK that his peers are playing the machines.

“It’s a serious thing for sure. It’s becoming too accessible for kids my age. I definitely have a fair amount of buddies that I know who have lost a good amount of money through gambling.”

Torch donates hundreds of thousands to PACs

Torch Electronics is one of the largest VLT providers in Missouri. It operates thousands of VLTs across the state.

According to KSDK’s reporting, the company has donated $901,670 to pro-VLT PACs in Missouri since 2018.

Interestingly, the regulated portion of Missouri’s gaming industry donated just $227,000 to PACs.

That’s a large discrepancy. And it could explain why there hasn’t been any form of regulation over VLTs to date. A lawmaker receiving money from pro-VLT providers will not be inclined to regulate the industry.

Another possible reason why VLTs remain unregulated came to light last year. It was rumored that off-duty law enforcement were working for VLT companies. Rep. Justin Sparks sent out a stark warning to police officers.

“If they are doing it, I would say they should stop immediately. Cops shouldn’t be doing that at all. it’s a conflict of interest. It might even be illegal.”

Complaints over VLTs on the rise

KSDK reports that the MGC has received 131 complaints over the phone and 98 via the internet so far in 2024.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol has investigated another 273 complaints and seized 18 machines.

In 2023, the MGC received 468 complaints. The Highway Patrol investigated 393 complaints but did not seize any machines.

VLTs are legal in Illinois, but issues remain

Unfortunately, legalizing VTLs in Missouri might not totally solve all the issues related to VLTs. Neighbor Illinois is a perfect example.

VLTs are legal and regulated in the Land of Lincoln. The emphasis has been on combatting underage gamblers through tax revenue generated by VLT operators.

Even so, thousands of illegal machines continue to operate in Illinois. Some Illinois cities have had to step in to stem the proliferation of both illegal and regulated machines.

Decatur added strict requirements to VLT operators last November to limit the number of machines operating in the city.

Where does Missouri go from here?

First and foremost, there must be oversight of VLTs in Missouri. If illegal gaming is taking place, local prosecutors need to step in.

Some think the MGC should regulate VLTs, but that can’t happen without legislation from Missouri legislators.

Legislators must either officially legalize and tax the machines or ban them altogether. Issues will continue to mount as long as they remain in a “gray” area of the law.

The state is losing millions of dollars every year it fails to tax the machines, and children will continue to gamble on the machines, possibly resulting in serious gambling problems for them down the road.

Missouri’s own President Harry Truman said it best: “The buck stops here.”

The problem with VLTs in Missouri is that no one knows where “here” is.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Adam Hensley

Adam Hensley is a journalist from Des Moines, Iowa, with experience covering online sports betting and gambling across Catena Media. His byline has appeared in the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and sites within the USA Today Network. Hensley graduated from the University of Iowa in 2019 and spent his college career working for the Daily Iowan’s sports department, both as an editor and reporter.

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