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Editorial: Why won't state and local officials enforce Missouri gaming laws?

Editorial: Why won't state and local officials enforce Missouri gaming laws?

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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

It is illegal in Missouri to host gambling machines except in licensed casinos. The law is clear on that, and just for good measure, a judge in September confirmed it. So why are state officials and local prosecutors still failing to confront the bars and gas stations that are hosting thousands of these unlicensed video gambling machines?

Some argue that gambling should be legalized across the state altogether, if only because it’s already everywhere anyway. But legalization must come with oversight and taxation, which still isn’t being applied to these rogue games. That must change, especially at a time when the state should be scrounging for every bit of revenue it can find.

At issue are some 14,000 video machines in business venues all over the state that players pay to play on the chance of making more money back. If that sounds like exactly what goes on in a casino, well, it is. Yet the machines aren’t licensed, taxed or regulated by the state, in blatant violation of Missouri’s gaming statutes.

That’s why Missouri’s Department of Public Safety has forwarded more than 70 probable-cause affidavits to local prosecutors for potential charges against businesses that host the machines. And it’s why a judge ruled that a Kansas City-based company that owns many of the machines committed felony illegal gambling, potentially punishable by a $10,000 fine.

State liquor regulators have drafted a letter to establishments that host the machines, informing them of the Platte County Circuit Court’s ruling. But as the Post-Dispatch’s Jack Suntrup reported last month, the letter fails to plainly state that they need to get rid of these machines or face legal consequences. Instead, the letter emphasizes that the court ruling is “not final at this time” — it can be appealed, in other words, which is routine in legal disputes. Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, acknowledges that the letter is “probably not strong enough,” which is putting it mildly.

Does Missouri regulate and tax gambling, or doesn’t it?

It does — and casinos abide by that regulation and pay those taxes, which benefits the public. They have every right to ask bluntly why this rogue industry of video machines gets to flout state law. They are operating without regulation, potentially ripping off their own customers and circumventing gaming taxes.

There is no reasonable justification for it. They’re just doing it, and getting away with it, in large part because the industry lobbies heavily and contributes to politicians’ campaigns, including Gov. Mike Parson’s.

The fact is, the judge’s ruling wasn’t even necessary for state officials and local prosecutors to move on this. The purveyors of these machines are breaking the law. Until the law changes, they and the business venues that host them should be raided, prosecuted and fined. Period. They have gambled on Missouri’s patience long enough.

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