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Missourians could vote soon on legalizing sports betting

Cameron Basden places sports bets from his phone on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, in the parking lot of a TJ Maxx in Fairview Heights, Ill. Basden is a resident of Mehlville, Mo., but drives across the river to Illinois on a regular basis to bet on sports. The betting is his main source of income.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Cameron Basden places sports bets from his phone in 2023 in the parking lot of a TJ Maxx in Fairview Heights. Basden is a resident of Mehlville, Mo., but drives across the river to Illinois on a regular basis to bet on sports.

Missouri has been a relative straggler when it comes to legalizing sports betting.

Because of a high-profile impasse in the Missouri General Assembly, sports gambling is illegal. But since it’s legal in Illinois and Kansas, many people drive across the border to place a wager.

If a ballot initiative from a group called Winning for Missouri Education is approved by voters, Missourians could bet on their computers and phones and at casinos and sports stadiums. The group said this week it's already gathered roughly 300,000 signatures. Ballot initiatives need to get a certain number of signatures in six out of eight congressional districts to go to a statewide vote with a minimum total of around 171,000.

“Missouri is one of only about a dozen states that hasn't legalized sports betting,” campaign spokesman Jack Cardetti said Friday on an episode of The Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air. “And that means we lose out on millions of dollars that could be going to our classrooms, and millions of dollars of economic opportunity. So if this ballot initiative passes, Missourians will be able to place sports bets in a responsible, regulated manner.”

The money generated from a tax on sports betting would go toward bolstering education and to curb compulsive gambling, advocates say. Critics of gambling expansion have argued that there’s nothing stopping lawmakers from using money that would have gone to education elsewhere and then filling in the hole with gaming proceeds. Cardetti said there are constitutional protections in the initiative to make sure the funds go toward its purpose.

“This money has to go towards Missouri education and it has to go towards our classrooms,” Cardetti said. “And quite frankly, Missouri education can use this permanent funding. We know that sports betting is here, it's here to stay. And we think it'll be a nice funding source that will help classrooms throughout the state.”

The initiative has the backing of the state’s major sports franchises, including the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Blues, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals. If passed, the initiative would allow sports franchises to set up an area within the parameters of a stadium to bet on sports.

“They view this as a great way to increase fan engagement,” Cardetti said. “They also are in a competitive disadvantage to other teams and other states that have this revenue stream.”

One of the other notable parts of the initiative is that the Missouri Gaming Commission could only authorize two mobile sports betting services to operate in the state.

Missouri state Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, speaks on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri state Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, speaks in January 2023 during a hearing at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Hoskins has wanted to pair sports betting legalization with authorizing video lottery terminals.

Roots of the impasse

Some Missouri lawmakers, such as state Sen. Denny Hoskins, have balked at legalizing sports betting without also legalizing video lottery terminals — which are gaming machines usually found at gas stations or fraternal halls.

The Warrensburg Republican said that casinos have been adamantly opposed to regulating and legalizing so-called VLTs primarily because it could be seen as competition. Hoskins, though, said he’s skeptical of that argument — adding that casinos often have an appeal as a social gathering place.

He said he doubts many people would say “let’s go down to the truck stop and eat some roller dogs and play some VLTs.”

“I think that we could actually get this solved if we left all the special interests out of the room,” Hoskins said.

Cardetti said the inability of lawmakers to pass a bill legalizing sports betting is why backers are going to the initiative petition process.

“And quite frankly, we've been overwhelmed with how enthusiastic Missouri voters are when we talk to them about sports betting,” Cardetti said. “I mean, every year the legislature fails to get this done. Meanwhile, seven of the eight border states in Missouri have sports betting.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr and the production intern is Roshae Hemmings. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.