The Missouri state capitol closed Tuesday, another blow to legal sports betting and likely ending hopes for legal wagering in 2020.
Lawmakers will work remotely to conclude legislative business for the 2020 session, but the focus will be almost entirely on the state budget, which is due at the beginning of May, as well as coronavirus relief measures, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.
The tight deadline to pass its multi-billion dollar budget and the crisis posed by the virus leave the General Assembly little time to weigh less pressing matters, especially when lawmakers and their staffs will have to work remotely. This almost assuredly ends hopes for passing sports betting legislation this year in what seemed, before the outbreak, to be one of the more promising environments to do so.
Bill Details and Background
Missouri was one of the first states to legalize modern riverboat casinos and there are now more than a dozen within state lines. Elected officials pursued legal sports betting to further bolster casino revenues (and their ensuing taxes) even before the Supreme Court struck down the federal wagering ban in May 2018.
Legislation stalled in 2018 and 2019 as lawmakers were torn between tax rates, registration requirements and, most significantly, compensation for sports leagues. That, combined with controversy over video lottery terminal legalization, helped thwart legislation each year.
Those divides extended to the 2020 session. Two separate House bills, one that allowed VLTs and sports betting and one that just allowed VLTs, advanced out of committee and to the full floor earlier this month. Meanwhile, the Senate took up several additional bills to permit both options.
Combined, the legislation took disparate approaches to the aforementioned issues. The compensation proposal, which would relocate a portion of sportsbooks’ handle back to the leagues, was decried by sportsbooks and industry interest groups which argued they would devastate what was already a low-margin industry. Some lawmakers also backed a mandate to pay leagues for data fees used on in-play bets, a requirement in only a handful of states with legal sports betting.
Sports Gambling Hopes End Early
Still, legislators were optimistic for a resolution. More than 20 jurisdictions were either taking sports bets or had passed a bill to do so by the time Missouri’s 2020 session began, including several bordering states. That external pressure, plus bipartisan, bicameral support for the concept of sports betting, had backers hopeful for a breakthrough even as legislation floundered for several months.
With in-person meetings for the 2020 regular session over and more pressing matters at hand, sports betting legislation will likely fall to the wayside. Lawmakers will reconvene remotely next week after a scheduled break. From there they will have a little over a month to finalize a budget. There will also be extra pressure to pass significant coronavirus relief measures.
With online sports betting statewide and retail betting at casinos, the Missouri government would likely generate several million dollars in revenue should a wagering bill pass before the end of the regular session. However, that’s a proverbial drop in the bucket for a budget that exceeds $25 billion annually.
Lawmakers Look to 2021
Assuming elected officials don’t call a special session later this year that incorporates the sports betting bills, lawmakers will likely have to reintroduce legislation for the 2021 session. In that scenario, interest should remain high.
By 2021, neighboring Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee and Arkansas will all take bets legally. Illinois, which began taking online sports bets in March and allows mobile wagering from anywhere within state lines, houses suburbs from St. Louis, Missouri’s largest metropolitan area.
Kansas too will likely consider sports betting bills in 2021 after its legalization efforts ended when its legislative session was also cut short due to the virus. Kansas splits the Kansas City metro area, Missouri’s second-largest and Show Me State lawmakers would undoubtedly look to avoid falling further behind either state in the sports betting expansion race.
Still, sports betting is far from the forefront of the minds of lawmakers – and most of their constituents – as the coronavirus pandemic expands in Missouri and across the nation. Once promising prospects for legislation are all but extinguished for now, but interest remains in the months and years to come.