JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri legislators have quietly taken the first step toward letting the state's casinos make loans to their patrons, a move that the gambling industry has sought for years but one that worries gambling opponents.
Under the measure, gamblers who passed a casino's credit check would be able to borrow money and exchange it for electronic tokens and chips to wager at the casino.
Proponents say the change would help Missouri's casinos attract high-end players, such as professional athletes visiting St. Louis. Without the change, they say those gamblers will cross the river and gamble in Illinois, where casinos are allowed to extend credit.
"You can't carry $30,000, $20,000 in cash," said Rep. Scott Largent, R-Clinton, sponsor of the casino amendment. "Some of these athletes who come in, they want to gamble. If they want to gamble that much, they should be able to."
The House Financial Institutions Committee tacked the change onto a banking bill Wednesday, with no debate. The bill then won the committee's endorsement on a vote of 13-1. It will go to the full House after the Rules Committee approves it.
Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, cast the only "no" vote, which she called a "protest against the process" of adding a complex change without time to review it.
Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, voted for the bill but now says she would have voted "no" if she had known what the amendment did.
"I made a mistake," Nasheed said. "I don't think gamblers should take out loans. You have gamblers who are addicted. It hurts their family. They lose their property. The divorce rate is high. We should try to protect them from themselves."
Barring casinos from extending credit was one of the safeguards in the original state law authorizing riverboat gambling. That law won voter approval in 1992 after a campaign that featured ads showing historic-themed riverboats plying the state's rivers.
Since then, much has changed. The state's 12 casinos are permanently docked. Gone is the law that limited gamblers to losing no more than $500 every two hours. Voters approved both changes after casino-funded campaigns.
The credit ban could be the next provision to fall. While many in the Republican-dominated Legislature oppose expanding gambling, the credit provision is being billed as a business issue.
Ten of the 15 states with land-based or riverboat casinos allow casinos to grant credit, said Mike Winter, who lobbies for the Missouri Gaming Association. High-end gamblers "have told us, 'We are not coming to Missouri because we can't establish a line of credit,'" he said.
Pinnacle Entertainment, which operates casinos in St. Louis and St. Louis County, already handles credit applications at its properties in Indiana and Louisiana.
"It just allows customers to access their money conveniently," said Neil Walkoff, executive vice president of regional operations for Pinnacle.
Under the bill, customers would have to qualify for a line of credit of at least $5,000. Drafters say that would weed out problem gamblers and others who couldn't afford to go into debt to gamble.
In Illinois, such loans must be handled using the same standards used by furniture stores, car dealers and other entities.
"It must be done in a commercially viable manner. They can't just give out markers willy-nilly," said Gene O'Shea, spokesman for the Illinois Gaming Board.
Critics of on-site credit say casinos entice people to wager more than they can afford, leading to bankruptcies and other social problems.
"Any time you make it easier for people who have gambling problems to increase their debt, then you make the problem worse for them," said Keith Spare of the Missouri Council on Problem Gambling Concerns.
If the loans are really aimed at out-of-state "high rollers," the amendment should be tailored for them, said Kerry Messer, who lobbies for the Missouri Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission.
As it is, he sees Missouri residents — "the No. 1 patrons at Missouri casinos" — as the ones who would stand at increased risk of losing their homes, farms and children's college funds.
"It's a horrible amendment," Messer said.
If passed by the House, the bill will return to the Senate, which has been less inclined to pass gambling bills. Indeed, the sponsor of the underlying bill, Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, wasn't happy Thursday to learn of the credit amendment.
"That's a good way to lose your house or car," Richard said.
(The bill is SB813.)
Kevin McDermott of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.