Missouri hearing divided between VLT and sportsbook supporters

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The battle lines were clearly drawn at Wednesday’s Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on two pieces of sports betting legislation. The committee heard testimony on a trio of gambling-related bills. First was Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer’s bill, SB30, which is a standalone sports betting bill. Second up was SB1, Sen. Denny Hoskin’s combination VLT and sports betting bill. Rounding out the pack was SB192, which is standalone VLT legislation from Sen. Karla May.

There were a long list of supporters across the legislation, but they very clearly broke down into people and groups who support sports betting and people and groups who support VLTs. Like the House hearing on the similar bills there, the state teams came out in full force to support the effort.

Missouri sports teams agnostic on VLTs

“As you know, we’ve been here several years trying to get this done and we feel like it’s a bill that has a lot of stuff in there for everybody but protects taxpayers,” said St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt of SB30. However, when he testified in favor of SB1, he made it clear the team was agnostic about VLTs.

“As for the VLT piece, to the extent that it would make it harder for this bill to pass, and it’s up to you guys to figure out the political calculation, we would not support it, but that’s for you guys to decide. But I think our position is that we’d like to see the two issues bifurcated,” he added later in the hearing.

The Kansas City Chiefs representative, Rich AuBuchon, signified the team’s support of both bills but, like DeWitt, said the team is agnostic on VLTs. Sen. Barbara Washington pushed back, asking him why the team is not willing to support small businesses wanting VLTs. AuBuchon reiterated the team is very dedicated to small businesses in Missouri, but they want to stay out of the VLT debate.

Many small business owners turned out to support both SB1 and SB194, but few seemed to care at all about the sports betting element of the bill. The only group with a strong stance in favor of sports betting and against VLTs was the Missouri Gaming Association, which was represented by Mike Winter.

MGA, Penn speak out against VLT machines in Missouri

“There is one piece which we did not have unanimity on and that’s the use of official league data. But the majority of my members do support the bill as written,” Winter said of the sports betting legislation. However, when he returned to speak on SB1, he was very clear about the group’s opposition.

“I find it interesting that some of the witnesses profess to tell you what’s good for the casino industry don’t have any affiliation with the industry. We know what’s happened in Illinois with the introduction of VLTs since 2012 and the significant impact it’s had not only on the casino industry, but the employees that were employed in the industry, some are not after the advent of VLTs, as well as the limited investment that has been made in Illinois since VLTs have proliferated.”

Winter also said the bill would create an unlevel playing field. The security standard for VLTs is different, there are not enough RG measures in place, and fines are one-third what they would be if a casino broke a similar rule.

According to a lawyer brought to the hearing by Penn Entertainment, Marc Ellinger, there are questions about the constitutionality of the bill.

“The lottery provisions in our Constitution are far different than the riverboat gambling provisions, which provide that the General Assembly shall regulate and administer how funds are allocated. The lottery provision Article Three Section 39B doesn’t say that it expressly says how the funds must be allocated,” the legal expert said. He also noted that the law is specific on what the lottery can do with revenues and that it does not include sharing those revenues with private businesses.

Washington pushed back on Ellinger’s interpretation of the law.

“I read it as it goes to education, but any other proceeds you can send where you want,” Washington said.

Hoskins has repeatedly said he will obstruct the passage of sports betting if it does not include VLTs. Based on the hearing, there is momentum for both, but not necessarily for both in the same bill.