Just weeks into the Missouri legislative session, it’s already clear that the only way Missouri sports betting gets done this year will be through a ballot initiative.
Usually it takes months for the Missouri Senate to break down into bickering and filibusters. This time, the animosity from the end of the last session, heightened by an election year, already has the Missouri Senate at a standstill.
Edward Vought, assistant to Rep. Dan Houx, described the situation in Missouri to PlayUSA:
“It’s already absolute chaos in the Senate. We’re going to do our part and get it through the House fairly quickly. But the same obstacles remain in the Senate as last year. If sports betting is not going to get through the legislature, which in my estimation it won’t, I expect they’ll make a push to pass it by IP [initiative petition] in November.”
Missouri Senate divide worse than ever
Usually partisan politics occurs between two parties, Republicans and Democrats. In Missouri, it is two factions within the same party at war.
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, who has supported sports betting passage, has taken action against four ultra-conservative senators who call themselves the Freedom Caucus. Rowden calls them the Chaos Caucus.
Rowden removed four Republican senators from their committee assignments and revoked parking spots. Among those punished were Sens. Denny Hoskins and Bill Eigel, who crusaded against a standalone sports betting bill at the end of last session. For years, Hoskins has insisted on regulating video gaming terminals along with sports betting to raise money for veterans’ causes.
In doing so, Rowden said in a release:
“The beginning of the 2024 legislative session in the Senate has been nothing short of an embarrassment. A chamber designed to be occupied with civil, principled statesmen and women has been overtaken by a small group of swamp creatures who, all too often, remind me more of my children than my colleagues.”
The group angered Rowden by filibustering daily for the past week, mentioning sports betting several times in the process. Rowden and Hoskins are running against each other in the election for Missouri Secretary of State. Eigel is a long-shot candidate for governor.
In an editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asserted that voters must do lawmakers’ jobs for them by legalizing sports betting:
“Government by referendum isn’t an ideal system. But when elected lawmakers routinely refuse to carry out the people’s will, citizens are left with little choice but to take matters into their own hands.”
Jack Cardetti, the spokesperson for the Winning for Missouri Education campaign backing the initiative, said the early session start to legislative issues might allow lawmakers to work out their disagreements. But sports teams are moving forward with the expectation that nothing gets done in the legislature this session.
“Some would argue it’s better to have a big blow-up in January and have time to work it out then in the last couple weeks of the session. But we’re unsure how this legislative session will turn out. Time and time again, the legislature has shown their inability to get this done, which is all the more reason we’re on a parallel track to make Missouri the 38th state to legalize sports betting through a ballot initiative.”
Brisk House hearing gives off deja vu vibes
Houx got his sport betting bill HB 2331 heard Tuesday in the House Special Committee on Public Policy.
Although many people offered familiar testimony, proponents kept their comments short. The House has passed sports betting legislation three times in the past two years only to have it die in the Senate. And they seem to know their efforts are futile this year as well.
Houx spoke on the bill for less than a minute before concluding:
“Other than that, I think we’ve heard it so many times, I feel like it’s Groundhog Day.”
The St. Louis Cardinals have led six Missouri professional sports teams in pushing for the initiative. Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III explained to the committee:
“There’s an approach out there to work on an IP in November if we’re not successful in the legislature this year. We would gladly suspend that effort if we are able to get legislative approval through this bill.”
Report alleges possible issue with initiative
Last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that a fiscal review conducted by Gov. Mike Parson’s administration raised red flags on the ability of the Department of Revenue to collect taxes on the initiative.
According to the analysis:
“Without the identification of an agency to collect the tax, no tax can be collected. Due to wording in this IP, the Department of Revenue assumes this IP will not generate any revenue to the state.”
Cardetti explained to PlayUSA that the Department of Revenue’s ability to collect taxes already is in the state constitution. He contended that including such language in the initiative would have just made it unnecessarily longer.
“They couldn’t be more wrong on this issue. Not only can the Department of Revenue collect the tens of millions of dollars sports betting will bring to our classrooms every year but they must collect those revenues. I can’t see any scenario where voters pass sports betting, it raises tens of millions of dollars in revenue and the Department of Revenue fails to collect. It’s their job.”
Cardetti added that this review won’t be part of the fiscal statement on the initiative provided to voters along with the initiative summary. So he doesn’t think it will negatively impact the ballot measure’s chances.
“It’s really not an issue at all. Missourians know legalized sports betting produces tens of millions of dollars. They’ve seen the seven states surrounding Missouri legalize sports betting and gained the revenue that comes from that. They certainly know that this is going to happen in Missouri as well after November.”
Teams plan to take initiative to the ballot
In waiting until the middle of January to launch signature gathering, it seemed the teams might have been indecisive on whether to move forward. But Cardetti said that, barring a legislative miracle, the teams do expect to put Missouri sports betting in front of voters in November.
“We’re full steam ahead to place this on the ballot,” Cardetti said. “The only thing that would make us pause that or stop that is the legislature passing a good piece of sports betting legislation prior to the May 8 turn-in date.”
The campaign already has begun collecting signatures behind funding from sports betting operators FanDuel and DraftKings. After initially each contributing $250,000 last week, FanDuel added $1.5 million and DraftKings added another $500,000 on Tuesday. That’s a total of $2.5 million to start.
The initiative allows for up to 21 online sports betting licenses. Missouri’s 13 casinos and six professional sports teams could each offer retail and online sports betting. There are an additional two untethered online sports betting licenses, likely to draw the interest of FanDuel and DraftKings.
Initial polling raised concerns of whether Missourians want sports betting. A St. Louis University poll conducted last year indicated that only 35% of Missourians supported sports betting legalization. A recent poll by The Missouri Scout had that number even lower at 26%.
Cardetti discredited the polls, saying that robo-polls have a terrible track record of predicting ballot initiative results. In 2018, Cardetti led the initiative campaign to legalize medical marijuana. He said, according to The Missouri Scout, it polled under 50%, but it ended up with 66% from voters on the ballot.
He said the campaign would not disclose its internal polling, but that the polling made them believe the sports betting initiative will pass.
“We are confident Missourians support it or we wouldn’t be moving forward.”