Missouri’s top cop shouldn’t cop out on illegal gambling

Missouri’s top cop shouldn’t cop out on illegal gambling

As illegal gambling machines spread across the Show Me State, Missourians are rightfully decrying the proliferation of these predatory devices into their communities.

However, Attorney General Andrew Bailey is doing the exact opposite. Bailey is removing his office from litigation on the issue as manufacturers of these so-called “skill games” challenge the state’s power to remove the machines from operation.

These unregulated and ubiquitous machines masquerade as the slot machines found in licensed, regulated casinos — but that’s all they have in common.

Operating outside the law, these machines offer no consumer protections or guaranteed payouts, as customers have no legal recourse if an unregulated operator refuses to pay. In fact, American Gaming Association research shows unregulated gambling machines exploit customers by offering worse odds. For every dollar bet by consumers, regulated machines keep seven cents on average, while unregulated machines keep nearly 25 cents.

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The difference: Legal machines are rigorously tested and retested by independent, licensed third parties, while unregulated machines undergo no such testing, relying on their appearance to fool customers into thinking they have a fair shot. And unlike legal gaming, which generated $458 million in tax revenue for Missouri in 2022, “skill” machines don’t deliver a penny for state coffers.

Without responsible gambling measures or proper supervision, these machines prey on the most vulnerable. It’s not uncommon to find minors playing these machines. And individuals with gambling problems have no options to opt-out or self-exclude, especially when the machines are littered in restaurants and convenience stores.

More than just illegal gambling operations, these machines often further endanger communities by funding additional illicit activity like drugs, weapons and money laundering and bringing crime to communities. According to news reports, criminals recently stole or attempted to steal unregulated machines from six different 7-Eleven stores, and, tragically, a convenience store clerk was murdered in 2020 by a customer who was aware of the money on site to pay winnings from the unregulated machines.

Missourians are taking notice. As noted in recent Post-Dispatch reporting (“Attorney general calls illegal gambling ‘complex.’ Many Missourians disagree.” May 30.), the spread of these machines has prompted more than 170 complaints to the Missouri Gaming Commission since the start of 2023. This includes several reports that skill machine operators are unjustly withholding thousands of dollars in winnings from them.

In the last three months, two class-action lawsuits have also been filed against the manufacturers of these machines. One alleges corruption and racketeering, including unjust monetary losses exceeding $5 million. And the other highlights how these machines unfairly compete with businesses that offer bona fide amusement devices.

Why, then, does Attorney General Bailey balk at his duty to protect Missourians from these bad actors? Either he fails to understand the severity of the problem, or — more likely — he is letting campaign donations from special interests get in the way. As the Post-Dispatch has reported, Bailey has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from PACs that are funded in part by the owners of these unlicensed machines, or their lobbyists.

Attorney General Bailey’s job requires that his constituents come first, not his political ambitions. The issue of illegal gambling isn’t complex. It’s a clear violation of the law and warrants the attention and immediate action of Missouri’s chief legal officer.

While the Attorney General’s office fails to act, the Missouri legislature can take action by passing legislation to ban these machines. Earlier this year, policymakers in neighboring Kentucky created the blueprint when they became the first state to pass standalone legislation to explicitly ban unregulated gambling machines.

Local law enforcement are also essential partners in this fight. We applaud Missouri’s previously successful efforts on this front — not just to remove machines but to educate Missourians on their dangers. But more can and must be done to follow up on tips, seize machines and remove this menace from communities.

This is not just a Missouri problem. By American Gaming Association estimates, Americans wager an estimated $110 billion on the more than 580,000 unregulated gaming machines across the country each year. In total, this costs states nearly $9 billion in taxes annually — money needed money for education, public safety programs, veterans’ programs and more.

The fact is, unregulated machine manufacturers are simply playing word games to get around the law because they cannot meet the high bar for casino gaming licensure and regulation.

Missouri can be a leader in helping eliminate these machines. Attorney General Bailey needs to do his job, and, in the absence his action, the state legislature and law enforcement must fight back. With a unified effort, Missouri can ensure these machines no longer take advantage of its residents or communities.

Bill Miller is the President and CEO of the American Gaming Association.

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