Even as Missouri regulators debate the proliferation of unregulated payout gaming machines at bars and gas stations statewide, St. Louis has approved the operation of dozens of the things within the city, categorizing them alongside “entertainment” devices like coin-operated jukeboxes.
That’s not what these are. The gaming machines are arguably a form of gambling that should be regulated and taxed like any other. The city should stop approving the machines until state lawmakers settle this issue.
Missouri regulates and taxes gambling machines in casinos, but it doesn’t allow machine gambling elsewhere. Allowing such gambling wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Illinois regulates and taxes gambling machines in restaurants and gas stations, and the sky hasn’t fallen.
The problem in Missouri is that the operators of these games aren’t asking for state approval to expand gambling outside the casinos; they’re just doing it. They’ve set up gaming machines all over the state without permission from gambling regulators, which means there’s nothing to keep them from cheating customers.
It also means the state isn’t taking in any gambling taxes, which was the whole justification for legalizing gambling in the first place. The machines siphon off public gambling revenue from casinos and the state lottery, and give nothing back to the taxpayers.
Operators claim they aren’t games of chance, despite their strong resemblance to slot machines. It’s a claim the state is investigating with an eye toward outlawing the machines or forcing regulation. Rather than cooperating with that legitimate process, though, the operators continue to operate, while loading up state politicians with campaign contributions in an obvious bid to affect the outcome.
In St. Louis, they’ve taken advantage of the process by which the city licenses coin-operated amusement devices like jukeboxes and coin-operated pool tables. As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reported this week, one of the gaming machine operators has set up more than 50 of the machines around town by paying the $10 sticker fee charged by the city License Collector’s Office.
That office says it doesn’t have the staff or expertise to determine whether the machines they’re approving are actually gambling devices rather than mere “coin-operated entertainment.” That’s not a completely unreasonable stance, given that it’s a question state gambling regulators are still wrestling with.
But the question alone merits suspending operation of these machines within the city, at least until gambling regulators get to the bottom of it. Shouldn’t the default position in the case of a questionable game be disapproval rather than approval?
The operators’ strategy is clear: Make these machines ubiquitous facts-on-the-ground before regulation sets in, so they’re that much harder to regulate. That kind of gambling regulation isn’t the city’s job, but that doesn’t mean the city should be helping them avoid it.