JEFFERSON CITY — After years of inaction by Missouri lawmakers, the push may be on to take aim at the tens of thousands of illegal slot machines spreading across the state.
In the first meeting of a special House committee formed to address gambling laws in the state, the chairman of the panel said Thursday that he believes Missourians want to unplug the illegal terminals, which have popped up in gas stations, taverns and convenience stores.
“The people are very clear: They want regulated gaming. They want to be sure they are getting their money’s worth,” said Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial. “It is the elephant in the room. What do we do with it?”
At issue are the growing number of machines that work like slot machines. A player inserts money, selects a game and decides how much to wager. Players who win money can cash out and get paid by the store cashier.
The Missouri Gaming Commission has deemed the terminals “gambling devices,” which are prohibited outside of Missouri’s 13 licensed casinos.
But, there is little agreement on how to control their spread.
The Missouri Gaming Commission says it can only police establishments that have bingo licenses.
And the Missouri Department of Public Safety, which oversees liquor licenses, says it cannot crack down on the machines because of a court ruling in 2000 that found the agency has no authority to seize gambling devices.
For now, it appears most of the work to crack down on the machines is on the backs of the state’s 115 county prosecutors, a process which Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, called “cumbersome.”
David Grothaus, executive director of the gaming commission, urged lawmakers to find a statewide solution.
“What the state needs is a very focused effort on these illegal machines,” Grothaus told the panel.
Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, said she knows of at least five locations within her district where illegal terminals are operating.
“It blows my mind that they are that blatant,” said Rep. Wes Rogers, D-Kansas City.
“These illegal machines are everywhere. I have several of them in my district,” Shaul added.
Finding a solution could be a tough sell when lawmakers gather for their annual session in January because of the varied interests involved in the debate.
Casino operators are opposed to legalizing the machines because they could cut into their profits. Casinos also want to begin taking wagers on sporting events, but the terminal operators don’t want to allow that without getting the ability to operate legally.
And, the players are pouring money into the campaign accounts of politicians.
Among the companies linked to the spread of illegal gambling is Torch Electronics, which is managed by Steve Miltenberger of Wildwood.
The company has hired a team of well-connected lobbyists and has pumped at least $20,000 in contributions to a campaign committee raising money for Gov. Mike Parson.
Miltenberger, who previously worked for video gambling companies in Illinois, where they have been taxed and regulated since 2012, has placed video terminals in businesses across Missouri over the past year.
Shaul said some of the blame for the situation lies with the Legislature.
“We’ve been letting this happen. We have allowed this industry to grow,” Shaul said. “It’s a multimillion dollar question.”
Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181 @KurtEricksonPD on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org