Gaming machines can be found at gas stations and bars throughout Missouri. But whether or not these “gray” machines are legal depends on how you interpret Missouri law. Manufacturers contend they’re merely entertainment machines, as the player knows the outcome of a bet before they press the button or pull the arm. Most law enforcement officials disagree.
Video lottery terminals, or VLTs, are electronic gambling machines that do not reveal whether the next bet is a winner or loser. VLTs are clearly illegal under Missouri law unless they’re in a regulated casino.
What do lawmakers plan to do about both machines, and why are they at the forefront of the debate to legalize sports betting in Missouri?
Confusion over Missouri VLTs and “Gray” Gaming Machines
Lawmakers have been trying to legalize Missouri sports betting for more than five years. All attempts have failed, but there’s optimism that legislators will be able to get it done in this session of the General Assembly.
Gray machines are at gas stations, veterans halls, fraternal lodges and other businesses across the state. They’re technically illegal, but they’re known as “gray” machines because this legality is questionable. Nonetheless, they’ve proliferated across Missouri. Law enforcement cracks down on businesses housing them from time to time, either confiscating the machines or destroying them.
And because these machines aren’t seen as a form of gambling, they don’t have to meet the same rigorous state regulations as the Missouri Lottery, the 13 riverboat casinos or any of the other legally definitive forms of gambling. Plus, they’re not taxed — a major issue for Missouri.
Then, there are VLTs.
There’s no gray area with VLTs. They’re definitely illegal under Missouri law. And the state’s casinos want them to stay that way — anywhere outside of a casino, at least.
Many assume VLTs and Missouri’s gas station gambling machines are one and the same. Unfortunately, lawmakers have yet to clear up the confusion through legislation.
Hoskins ties sports betting debate to VLTs and gray machines
It’s VLTs that state Sen. Denny Hoskins (R-District 21) wants to legalize and tax. He has made it clear in several legislative sessions that he doesn’t intend to sign off on legalizing sports betting unless VLTs are made legal as well. And he, alone, can halt any sports betting legislation if he goes through with his plans to filibuster.
Hoskins claims that legalizing VLTs would generate much more tax revenue for the state than sports betting. He says the money would bring millions of dollars more to education and also help fund veterans’ homes and cemeteries, which have been severely underfunded in the past.
Many lawmakers do not want sports betting tied to VLTs or gray machines — as evidenced by the other Missouri sports betting bills submitted in the House and Senate.
Some question whether there’s even room in the market for VLTs if legislators don’t rein in gray machines. Other state legislators, however, like Sen. Karla May (D-4th District), support the legalization of VLTs.
Getting sports betting to the finish line could require strengthening the legal language around gray machines, in addition to finding a compromise on VLTs.
The General Assembly has yet to do either.