JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers relaunched an effort Thursday to stamp out thousands of illegal gambling devices that have flooded the state in recent years.
With Senate President Dave Schatz leading the charge, a Senate panel heard testimony on a proposed crackdown on slot machines that faltered last year amid the pandemic-shortened legislative session.
Schatz’s plan, which addresses unregulated machines that have been placed in convenience stores, bars and fraternal organizations, would revoke liquor and lottery licenses for those who are caught with the devices.
The legislation also would bar guilty establishments from participating in any future expansion of legal gambling.
The games operate similarly to casino slot machines in that a player deposits money with the chance of winning or losing money by placing a bet.
Because the games are unregulated, there are no consumer protections to prevent low payouts, no money directed to public education and no resources available for addicted gamblers.
“It’s clearly illegal,” Schatz said. “There is no gray area. This is impacting revenues that should be going to our schools.”
The Sullivan Republican’s ongoing efforts were bolstered last year by a Platte County case in which a judge found a Kansas-based company guilty of a felony for placing its machines in a local gas station.
Despite the ruling and a stepped-up level of investigation by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, however, Schatz said local prosecutors remain hesitant to bring cases to court.
“These games, they exist everywhere,” Schatz said. “I feel like I’m stepping into a two-bit casino” when he enters some convenience stores.
Current estimates show there may be as many as 15,000 machines in the state. In 2019, the Post-Dispatch reported that Torch Electronics, a clout-heavy company based in Wildwood, had installed at least 52 machines within the borders of St. Louis.
The push has the backing of the state’s casinos, which are concerned about a loss of market share from people who chose to spend their money at gas station gambling machines instead of traveling to one of the regulated casinos.
“Given the vast numbers of these that are out in the state, something needs to be done,” said Mike Winter, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Association.
During the hearing, the lone opponent was Torch Electronics, which has retained a lobbying firm with ties to Gov. Mike Parson and has given the governor $20,000 in campaign contributions.
Tom Robbins, who represents Torch Electronics, said the legislation will put the company out of business.
The company also contends its machines are not games of chance and should not be considered illegal.
“Our games are configured critically differently,” Robbins said. “Our games are for amusement, not gambling.”
Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, called that argument a sham.