Gambling industry may manipulate bill
By Lee Warren
April 5, 2005
JEFFERSON CITY – In a move leaving Missouri gambling opponents scratching their heads, the Missouri Gaming Commission and the Missouri Riverboat Gaming Association testified in favor of House Bill 592, which has already been passed by the House and has been assigned to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The bill would require “jackpots over $1,200 won by self-excluded problem gamblers on excursion gambling boats to be deposited into the Compulsive Gamblers Fund” if it is passed and signed into law. It has a high potential to be a vehicle to expand gambling in Missouri, according to Kerry Messer, lobbyist, Christian Life Commission of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC).
Why would the gambling industry testify in favor of giving up winnings from self-excluded problem gamblers? Currently these winnings are forfeited back to the casino when a self-excluded person with a compulsive gambling habit is caught using a false identification in order to gain access to casino gambling.
“If the fox guarding the hen house has a plan for keeping the chickens safer from foxes, you can be sure there’s some mischief in those plans,” said Christian Life Commission Chairman Rodney Albert. “The fox’s sole purpose is to stay well fed, not to protect the hens.
“This legislation looks very interesting on its face, but with pro-gambling forces pushing it, we must approach it with a high degree of trepidation.”
Messer said he cannot get a straight answer when he asks why the casino industry would support a bill to take away money they could otherwise donate freely.
“We must assume the worst,” Messer said. “We would be foolish not to prepare for the worst. If there is an under-the-current agenda to use HB 592 as a sneaky catalyst for removing the $500 loss limit, such an agenda would circumvent the public hearing process and catch legislators and concerned citizens off guard.”
Adding to the growing skepticism among gambling opponents about HB 592 are potential amendments that would remove the current $500 loss limit per every two hours currently on the books in Missouri.
Mark Andrews, chairman of Chesterfield-based Casino Watch Inc., pointed out the ramifications of removing the loss limit—regardless of whether it happens as part of HB 592 or another bill.
“I think it is very clear that the removal of the loss limit will mean a tremendous amount of profit for the casinos and a tremendous amount of losses for the people of Missouri,” Andrews said. “Missourians lost $1.4 billion at casinos last year.
“The position that Casino Watch takes is that it is not good public policy—in fact, it’s very bad public policy—for government to raise money on the backs of its own citizens.”
Albert said that the loss limit has a dual purpose.
“It protects vulnerable gamblers from their own compulsive tendencies and it serves as a protection against criminal money laundering,” Albert said.
“In the first case, a gambler can become so obsessed with his pursuit of winning and the glamour of the casino that he completely loses all rational thought. The casino doesn’t want him to think. They want him to impulsively act. The loss limit forces him to take a breather, and sometimes that break is the very thing that will return a little bit of sanity to his mind. When it soaks in that he just gambled his family’s grocery money away—that can be a sobering reality and may just be the needed jolt to send him to his car to drive away.
“In the second case, there’s some pretty clear evidence that criminals use casinos for their money laundering schemes. They’ll buy say $50,000 in casino chips, play a while, and then cash them out. Then they walk away with clean, untraceable money. Missouri’s loss limit forces them to go at a pace of $500 per two hours, and that pace is too slow for their purposes. If the loss limit were removed, Missouri would become an attractive target for criminals who need untraceable money in large quantities.”
Most gambling opponents in Missouri have picked the $500 loss limit hill to do battle on in recent years. Chip Mason, director of government relations for Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., said that Herschend Family Entertainment, whose Branson-based corporation owns, operates or partners in 19 properties in 9 states including the Silver Dollar City theme park outside of Branson, did not zero in on the loss limit but instead focused on limiting gambling in general.
He said the corporation supports HB 560 that would limit the number of excursion gambling boat licenses which can be issued as well as Senate Bill 387 that would limit the number of licenses to utilize slot machines.
“Limiting gambling expansion is a good thing for all of us,” Mason said. “And these bills (HB 560 and SB 387) would do that. If there are 11 casinos in the state and you’ve got St. Louis and Kansas City pretty saturated (along with) Caruthersville, central Missouri, and Boonville, where else are you going to put them?
“Of all the bills, HB 560 is the one that really interests me,” Mason said. “(Rep.) Mark Wright (R-Springfield), when he originally took the bill on the floor before he filed it, I think had 72 co-sponsors in an hour and a half. So it sounds to me like there’s a pretty good interest in no more gambling.
“I hope that the bill gets the opportunity to be heard on the floor of the House and sent over the Senate and get the same opportunities there and let the senators decide on what they want to do. You look at the last August election and it’s pretty clear that the state voted against those two issues pretty heavily and there are a lot of constituents in those districts who voted against the expansion of gambling.”
While the Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. has fought to keep gambling out of the Branson area, Mason wants Missourians to understand that the corporation is against the expansion of gambling throughout the entire state.
“The overall issue is not just Branson,” Mason said. “It’s a statewide issue.”
While the strategy among gambling opponents to limit gambling across the state may not be the same, they do agree that expanded gambling is bad for Missouri.
“The casino industry has but one purpose—to make money off of Missourians and usually from those who can least afford it,” Albert said. “They understand compulsive tendencies and they’ve done everything they can to exploit those weaknesses. They want to suck every cent they can out of every gambler and out of every gambler’s family. They are shameless in their greedy pursuit of money and they are no friend of pro-family Missourians.”
Albert encouraged Missouri Baptists to be vigilant against all forms of expanded gambling.
“We are one of the few remaining groups that recognize gambling as a radical departure from a just society,” Albert said. “We must remain steadfast and active and prepare ourselves to call, write, and visit our elected officials and let them know we will not stand for removing the loss limit under any condition.”
One action step that Albert recommended is to sign up for alerts at the Christian Life Commission website: www.moclc.org.
“We can then keep you updated on how you can best protect Missouri’s families from the predatory casinos,” Albert said.