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Missouri Ballot Initiative Might Be Path After Legislature Fails To Legalize Sports Betting

Written By Matthew Kredell | Updated:
Another Missouri Sports Betting Loss

After a major push by sports teams to pass Missouri sports betting gridlocked the Senate in the final days of the legislative session, proponents might switch focus to a ballot initiative.

Missouri sports betting legislation failed to pass for the sixth consecutive year. Yet it was the main issue underlying discussion on the Senate floor over the final two days.

Legislative leaders in both chambers pushed for Missouri sports betting passage in the final week and called out obstructionist senators. In return, those senators called out colleagues for focusing on sports wagering over larger issues.

Video lottery terminals, and one particular senator’s insistence that Missouri authorizes VLTs with sports betting, once again were at the center of it all.

“I think we’ve reached the point now that one senator halted sports betting in Missouri and that’s Denny Hoskins,” Penn Entertainment VP of Public Affairs Jeff Morris told PlayUSA. “Everybody is on board except one guy.”

Missouri sports betting at center of Senate gridlock

The Missouri House already passed standalone sports betting legislation earlier this session for the second year in a row.

But the Senate had not taken up the bill. And when the Senate did try to take up Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer’s companion legislation, Hoskins filibustered the bill.

With three days left in the session, Rep. Dan Houx tried to put pressure on Hoskins. Houx attached his sports betting bill to SB 92, a Hoskins’ bill seeking benefits for rural businesses that the Senate had passed.

Thursday in the Senate, Sen. Bill Eigel made a motion on the floor to discuss SB 8, his bill to reduce property taxes. But Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, the Senate majority floor leader, made a substitute motion to consider SB 92 instead.

Hoskins refused to take up his bill and give in to the attempt to pass sports betting without VLTs.

An enraged Eigel, who is exploring running for Missouri governor in 2024, then filibustered most of the remaining two days. In between reading chapters from the biography “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” Eigel made some points about sports betting.

“I guarantee you there are going to be a lot of folks on Dec. 1 wanting to know why they didn’t get any relief on personal property taxes. And the answer is because powerful special interests were so concerned about moving something like sports betting in this state that we couldn’t move on to the actual important policies like cutting personal property taxes. … Some of the biggest, most profitable, resource-rich corporations in our state – the professional sports teams – are the ones asking for this.”

O’Laughlin called Eigel’s display “political theatre” on the floor:

“We can either have chaos, which we have had for the last few days or years, or a respectful, organized situation. What is happening is that we are having senators bring to the floor legislation that they cannot get passed and, in retaliation, they are hanging up the Senate for hours.”

No doubt Missouri sports betting would have passed

The Missouri House passed sports betting legislation twice this year and once last year. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 11-1 to recommend passage of Luetkemeyer’s standalone sports betting bill this year.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden championed passing sports betting along with tax cuts. To begin the final day, Rowden expressed his frustration by breaking for procedure and ignoring Eigel.

He later called out Eigel and Hoskins on Twitter. Rowden stated that every other member of the Senate was willing to vote on Missouri sports betting.

After the session ended Friday, Rowden again tweeted that he and O’Laughlin offered a bill to cut taxes by $750 million with sports betting included. But it was rejected “because we wouldn’t put slot machines in gas stations.”

VLTs voted down in Senate twice

Slot-like machines already exist in many Missouri gas stations, truck stops and bars. Estimates have more than 10,000 of these video gaming machines across the state. Hoskins wants to regulate the industry and put some of the state’s share of tax revenue toward homes and cemeteries for veterans

Previously, no one could say for sure where lawmakers stood on the issue because it had never come up for a vote.

During consideration of Luetkemeyer’s SB 30 on the Senate floor in April, an amendment to include VLTs lost 11-20. Hoskins’ SB 1 combining sports betting and VLTs also lost 2-10 in Appropriations.

“I think the biggest difference this session was that, for the first time, there was a vote on VLTs and it was resoundingly defeated twice, in committee and on the floor,” Morris said. “Rather than go with the will of the body, Hoskins picked up his ball and went home. That’s what is so frustrating.”

Mike Winter, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Association, told PlayUSA he had hoped that vote would break the VLT hold up of sports betting.

“We’ve seen some senators have issues with allowing sports betting on its own to move forward. We thought that was somewhat resolved with the strong vote in opposition to the VLT package being included in sports betting. But obviously that didn’t convince them to allow sports betting to move forward.”

Missouri sports betting proponents look to ballot

With the legislature failing to pass Missouri sport betting legislation once again, proponents might look at bringing the issue directly to the voters.

In multiple interviews urging Senate passage, St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt said if the Missouri legislature didn’t pass sports betting legislation this session, teams would look into circumventing the legislature and putting the issue to voters by filing a ballot initiative.

The Kansas City Royals made a statement backing DeWitt and mentioning the possibility of an initiative.

Missouri casinos will consider an initiative but might prefer simply waiting out Hoskins. Winter responded to the idea of an initiative:

“I’m not sure how that would play out given that we’re behind the ball now in getting an initiative prepared and filed and approved for signatures. But that is a possibility that obviously the teams are talking about. Our preference is to pass a piece of legislation through the legislature. But my group hasn’t sat down and talked about it, being only two days from the session ending. We’ll put our heads together and figure out the best path in the next couple months.”

Missouri sports teams, casinos and online operators have been on the same page in pushing for Missouri sports betting legislation the past two years.

“We’re certainly open to the discussion,” Morris said. “We’ll let the dust settle on what just happened and figure out what the next steps are. I don’t think any decision has been made. We all want sports betting, whether it’s through the legislature or on the ballot.”

Going directly to voters still up for debate

Pursuing an initiative does have its drawbacks:

  1. It’s costly. As seen in California last year, where online sportsbook operators spent $170 million on a sports betting initiative and got nothing to show for it.
  2. There’s risk. You never know the result when putting an issue in front of voters. Advertising campaigns and money spent sway elections.

A poll conducted by St. Louis University in February indicated just 35% of Missouri voters supported sports betting legalization. The poll showed 41% of Missourians in opposition.

Sports teams and casino companies need to do their own research and polling before deciding how to move forward.

If Missouri sports betting loses a vote of the people, it becomes much more difficult to get through the legislature.

Alternatively, Missouri sports betting proponents can just wait a year to clear up the legislative roadblock. Hoskins terms out of office following next year.

Photo by PlayUSA
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Matthew Kredell

Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 after federal passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act disrupted his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker. He has since interviewed more than 300 lawmakers around the country and written extensively about online gambling legislation. He has led coverage of bills to legalize online gambling in most states. A lifelong Angeleno and USC journalism alum, Matthew started his career working as a sportswriter for a decade at the Los Angeles Daily News. He has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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