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Illinois video gambling

A video gambling machine at a bar in Alton, Ill.

(Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

Missouri officials are right to declare that video games in bars that pay out winnings — gambling machines, in other words — are illegal. Local prosecutors should take it as a cue to start cracking down. The unregulated games are proliferating across the state and drawing business from the state lottery, which funds education. Whatever you think of legalized gambling, allowing it to go unlicensed and untaxed is a bad bet.

The debate that raged in the past over whether state governments should sanction any gambling at all has long since been settled. Like it or not, taxes and other revenue from gaming, both at casinos and via state lotteries, have become a budgetary staple in Missouri and elsewhere.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year cleared the way for state-sanctioned sports gambling as well, and some states (though, so far, not Missouri) have already rushed to open that new spigot. The vice that built Las Vegas is no longer staying in Vegas; it’s everywhere.

Some states, including Illinois, have also legalized video gambling machines in venues other than casinos. Offered at bars, truck stops and gas stations, players can cash out their winnings at the front counter. Illinois regulates and taxes the machines.

That’s the primary difference from what’s happening in Missouri: the machines here are springing up all over the place, with none of the state licensing or taxation imposed on casinos. And they’re showing up at places that also sell lottery tickets, giving patrons a choice between gambling that helps fund schools, or gambling that doesn’t.

One machine supplier claims they aren’t really gambling devices because there’s no skill involved — a flimsy argument when you consider the skill-free nature of casino slot machines. In fact, there’s no real debate that off-site video gambling is actual gambling and that it’s happening without regulation or taxation in Missouri.

Still, local prosecutors have mostly left them alone, perhaps because of the lack of an assertive declaration by state regulators about the machines’ legality. But as the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reported this week, that declaration has now been made.

In a July 3 letter obtained by the Post-Dispatch, the Missouri Gaming Commission’s lead attorney stated the obvious: These are gambling machines, operating outside the state’s regulatory and taxation structures. It came in response to an inquiry by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post about whether the video gaming machine the VFW was hosting constitutes illegal gambling. They were told, in appropriately strong language, that it does.

An argument might be made that these machines should be legalized and taxed in Missouri, as they are in Illinois. That’s a question for the Legislature. But there’s no argument for letting them continue to operate unregulated. In gambling, it’s said, the house always wins. Missouri needs to make sure that means the taxpayers.