The gambling industry wants more options

Bill Graham

Bill Graham

I wonder if recent efforts by Riverside city officials to oppose expansion of legalized gambling in the state via sports betting and video lottery terminals amounts to placing sandbags on a levee that will eventually be overtopped? History indicates gambling waters will continue to rise. Temptation is such a powerful money maker, at least for the few that are in the business of mining the human desire to experience good luck.

Legislation has been proposed in the Missouri General Assembly to allow any business with a liquor license to install digital video gaming devices. Convenience stores, bars, restaurants and fraternal orders could install a quick and easy way for people to stick some paper bills or a charge card into a terminal and try their luck. Proponents pitch increased taxes and fees for the state to collect, and jobs here and there. Opponents say it would hurt existing river-based casinos revenues, providing less money for the towns that host them and perhaps causing job cuts.

The bills may be stalled by concerns from state senators. Some cite harm to existing casinos and minors having access to gambling. Some also questioned suggestions that some revenue go towards sports stadiums and veteran issues, rather than just education.

At a hearing in February, Riverside officials were among city delegations testifying that expanded gambling would hurt their community. That’s because Riverside hosts the Argosy Casino Hotel & Spa, which has generated a lot of revenue for the city since opening in 1994. Gambling is a competitive business for everyone involved. Of the 13 licensed “riverboat” casinos in Missouri, four are in the Kansas City metro area and a fifth is in St. Joseph. And they compete with various gambling enterprises in Kansas.

The gambling industry has relentlessly expanded in Missouri since the mid-1980s. State legislators and city leaders come and go as years go by. The gambling industry is permanent and always looking for growth. Gambling history in the state is littered with broken promises.

Gambling used to be an illegal domain controlled by crooks and mobsters. Perhaps that was due to moral objections from an earlier time, and because people got tired of seeing family grocery and rent money being lost in saloons. Some liked keeping the field narrow. Kansas City crime and political boss Tom Pendergast ran an illegal gambling operation at a horse racing track in Riverside from 1928 to 1937.

I recall opposition to Missouri’s state lottery, which first sold tickets in 1986. Proponents said the lottery would help generate state revenue without legalizing gambling parlors. Opponents said the lottery was a way for the gambling industry to get its foot in the door.

Sure enough, Missouri’s state legislators then floated riverboat gambling proposals. Mind you all this was similar to other gambling industry expansions in other states. Missouri voters approved riverboat gambling with the law written so that large boats world cruise the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, taking us back to the 1850s and keeping trouble away from ports.

Parkville voters had knock-down-drag-out elections in the early 1990s on whether or not to host a riverboat, which caused delays. But Riverside landed the metro area’s first boat, and projects in Kansas City and North Kansas City were soon rolling. Parkville was abandoned by the industry.

Argosy kept its word and docked a cruising riverboat casino near U.S. 69. I got to ride up with the captain once on a cruise, writing a Kansas City Star story about what it’s like to pilot a boat on the river. The captain let me pull the cord that sounded the big horn, which, I’ll admit was a thrill.

But then the gambling industry soon talked Missouri out of cruising due to expense and hassle. And the fact that people just wanted to gamble. Some casinos were built in little moats in a laughable adjustment. Even stationary boats were supposed to have two-hour cruises. Loss limits were in place. But the cruise times were eliminated. Loss limits were made far more liberal. Some people got jobs in casinos that supported families. Other people also wound up in the news from committing crimes or public suicides related to gambling.

Voters approved an amendment in 1994 that allowed all manner of slots machines and games of chance. I remember seeing a casino open for business one morning and somber faced retirees lined up to go in and gamble. Their faces had the look of people trying to win back the pension check, rather than fun seekers.

Perhaps legislators and voters will in the coming years decide to cash in on those who like to bet on sports in whatever joint they’re in. We all know from debit and credit card swipes for buying gas and food how easy it is for digital devices to authorize money moving from our bank accounts. The gambling industry has proven it always wants more. A smart bet is that the industry’s winning streak eventually continues, regardless of collateral damage to the losers.