A pair of Missouri sports betting bills have made progress in their paths to the desk of Gov. Mike Parson. The legalization of video lottery terminals (VLTs) is notably absent from each piece of legislation.
VLTs are an inherently different type of gambling than sports betting. However, Sen. Denny Hoskins wants them to pass together, in the same bill.
Why? Hoskins argues for the significantly larger amount of revenue VLTs would bring compared to sports betting alone, simply by regulating the “gray” machines that have already proliferated around the state.
So it’s worth asking: Why do VLTs not garner the same support as sports betting?
Missouri casinos support sports betting, but not VLTs
In each piece of Missouri sports betting legislation filed in 2023, the state’s 13 casinos would play an integral role in its implementation.
Currently, gambling machines are illegal outside of casinos in Missouri. As such, casinos could stand to lose revenue from customers who opt to use gambling devices at “fraternal organizations, veteran organizations, truck stops … and business entities designed to sell liquor by the drink.”
Additionally, video lottery terminal operators would have to pay a 36% tax. This is high, compared to the proposed 10% sports betting tax and 21% gaming tax.
Missouri’s professional sports teams have also indicated that they are only interested in a standalone sports betting bill.
With numerous industries opposed to the legalization of VLTs, legislators like Rep. Dan Houx, who authored House Bill 556 (which successfully passed the House and is up for discussion in the Senate), doesn’t see how sports betting can pass burdened with VLTs.
VLTs would likely be under the jurisdiction of the Missouri Lottery
VLTs would be regulated by a completely separate agency than sportsbooks. This has posed an additional complication to the potential legalization of sports betting.
Sports betting would fall under the purview of the Missouri Gaming Commission (MGC). VLT’s would likely be regulated by the Missouri Lottery Commission, according to MGC Chairman Mike Leara.
“It’s a real challenge to have any of this become law on the video lottery terminals,” Leara said. “We probably have more expertise than the lottery does on this type of device, but it seems like they’re giving the VLTs to the Lottery Commission.”
Spread of VLTs has resulted in complaints to MGC, lawsuits
Leara said that they have fielded plenty of complaints from the general public at the MGC in regards to the “gray” machines people may come across at their local gas station.
“Much of the public doesn’t see it any differently than that and they see a slot machine at a convenience store and they’re troubled by that,” Leara said. “Much of the public believes that all the gaming in the state should be inside a casino, where they’re regulated, where they’re monitored, and there’s a supervising and auditing process.”
The proposed legalization of VLTs in Hoskins’ SB 1 would allow VLTs outside of casinos. However, his aim is to regulate, supervise and collect taxes on them.
Some of this contempt for VLTs has led to lawsuits. This includes one in federal court that was recently filed against Torch Electronics. In 2021, five gambling machines were destroyed in Platte County by court order.
However, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey has left the matter up to county prosecutors.
“Are (VLTs) illegal right now? Some believe that they are,” Leara said. “A lot of prosecutors are not taking these cases, while some are.”
More on Hoskins’ pro-VLT, anti-gambling expansion stance
While VLTs are faced with strong opposition on multiple fronts, it’s important to identify why Hoskins’ views on their legalization may align with similar principles as those against.
Some estimates suggest that north of 14,000 “gray” machines already exist in the state, according to past PlayMissouri reporting. And while some would like to see them disappear (outside of casinos) outright, Hoskins would like to see that number decrease significantly.
Houx has indicated a willingness to raise the tax rate for sports betting. This could possibly satisfy Hoskins’ wishes for more revenue that, in his proposal, would come from VLTs.
However, sports betting revenue is legally required to be allocated to education. Hoskins would like to funnel more funds for veterans’ homes and cemeteries.
Ultimately, however, the opposition to the legalization of VLTs is strong, even if Hoskins shares some of the concerns of the general public.
Hoskins, while among the few in support of its legalization, is (arguably) equally as strong, at least in terms of his legislative ability to thwart any standalone sports wagering bill. He can do this via the filibuster, and has aggressively used that method in the past.
The difference between VLTs and sports betting
While some parties in the discussion over VLTs are seeking to merely protect their bottom lines, the general public simply sees them differently from sports betting.
They’re right. In Houx’s HB 556, sports betting is defined as a game of skill. VLTs, meanwhile, are games of chance.
“Most of the interaction has been not with the legislature seeking our expertise, but it’s been the complaint process that we have received the calls on and it’s been substantial,” Leara said. “There have been a lot of calls.”