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Coronavirus sidelines effort to legalize sports betting in Missouri


JEFFERSON CITY — Just as it has shut down baseball, basketball and hockey games, the coronavirus also has sidelined attempts to legalize sports betting in Missouri.

In the latest sign that there will be no movement on the issue in the remaining weeks of the state’s annual legislative session, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association ended their contracts with a team of top lobbyists representing their interests in the Capitol.

The decision to terminate the lobbying contracts was reported to state ethics regulators on Thursday.

The move comes after the push to allow people to wager on sports was gaining momentum in Missouri.

But, like the decision to cancel sporting events, lawmakers cut their spring session short in mid-March over fears of the spread of COVID-19.

Although the House and Senate have returned and are taking action on some legislation as they head toward a May 15 adjournment, the Republican-controlled Legislature is shying away from acting on many significant changes in state policy.

“It appears we are running out of time to take action on both sports betting and video lottery,” said Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, who has sponsored various wagering changes in recent years.

“The break we took because of coronavirus will not allow us to properly vet the legislation,” Hoskins added.

The decision to postpone action until 2021 comes as tax revenues are falling, forcing Gov. Mike Parson and lawmakers to adjust their spending plans.

Missouri casinos also have been shuttered during the pandemic, leaving sports gamblers without a physical venue to place bets if it were possible.

Like casinos, sports betting, if approved, could provide an influx of tax dollars into state coffers.

An analysis of one proposal shows the sports betting could generate $137 million annually once it is fully implemented in 2025.

Legally betting on sports was barred in all states except Nevada until a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed all states to offer it.

The professional sports leagues brought in lobbyists to try and extract a share of the pie, saying their games are being used to generate cash for the state and the casinos.

Last year, for example, Major League Baseball attorney Bryan Seeley told a House panel that the league wants to create a fee-based partnership with the state that would “protect baseball and its fans by providing consumer protections and a strong regulatory framework.” But the casinos don’t like the fee concept, putting them at odds with the wishes of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals.

Rep. Wes Rogers, a Kansas City Democrat who sponsored a sports betting proposal, said one alternative is to require casinos to purchase data from the leagues.

Rogers also believes the state will eventually allow sports betting using mobile phones because that will result in the largest revenue increase for the state.

“Because of the downturn in tax revenues, we’re going to be looking for every penny we can get,” Rogers said. “I suspect we’ll have an online option.”

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