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Illinois video gambling

Video gamblers play the machines at Riverbend Billiards & Grill in Alton. Illinois regulates and taxes pay-out video gaming outside licensed casinos; Missouri does not. 

Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

The purveyors of pay-out video gaming machines in Missouri bars, truck stops and gas stations are not only potentially breaking state law by running unregulated, untaxed gambling, but they’re indignantly claiming the right to do so. At least one of the gaming companies has hired high-powered lobbyists and is complaining that attempts by the Legislature to regulate the games is unwarranted “government bureaucracy.”

That’s ridiculous. If these folks want to argue that the gaming genie is out of the bottle and that there’s no reason to deny bar patrons some video gambling with their drinks, fine, make that case. But to claim they shouldn’t be regulated and taxed like any gambling operation makes zero sense.

Unregulated video gaming machines have been sprouting like mushrooms at venues around Missouri. Players pay to play, and have a chance of a bigger payout if they win. The Missouri Gaming Commission has already declared the machines to be a form of illegal gambling because they aren’t approved, regulated or taxed by the state. They are regulated in Illinois, which enjoys a significant source of state revenue as a result. Local authorities in Missouri have been hesitant to act against the machines, though, until Jefferson City sets clear policy.

Missouri defines gambling as either games of pure chance, like slots, or games of skill in which chance is an element, like poker or blackjack. There is some debate about whether all the machines actually qualify as gambling, with some claiming to be entirely skill-based. But of course with no state regulation in play, there’s no way to confirm that — and no way to ensure patrons aren’t being cheated.

Gaming-machine owners claim not to be part of the gambling industry, but they certainly act like they are. As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson has previously reported, some operators have hired big-name lobbyists and political consultants and made significant campaign contributions.

A committee debating the future of Missouri gambling is inviting operators to come testify as to why they should be allowed to continue to operate outside the state’s normal gaming system, Erickson reports. At least one company sounds ready to do it, saying through a spokesman that it welcomes the chance to argue against “instituting new costs on Missourians” and making “the free-market case to the Legislature.”

This isn’t about the free market. It’s about the state’s legitimate interest in regulating a previously illegal activity that, for better or worse, is here to stay. The deal Missouri and other states made for opening that door was that gambling would be tightly controlled by the representatives of the people, and taxed for the public good. If these video game operators don’t want to play by those rules, they shouldn’t be allowed to play at all.