Missouri: Bill opening the door to potential Osage River casino in discussion at House

A Missouri House committee considered a bill Wednesday that would put a constitutional amendment before voters to expand casino gambling. House Joint Resolution 23 would put a measure on the ballot that, if passed, would allow the Missouri Gaming Commission to grant a license for a casino on the Osage River. 

Bill sponsor Rep Jeff Knight cited projections that a casino in the Lake of the Ozarks area could net about $100 million in revenue annually. The gaming commission taxes 25% of casinos’ revenue, which means the state would take in about $25 million a year, as reported by the Columbia Missourian.

Mayor Dennis Newberry of Lake Ozark, a city of 2,000 along the Osage River considered the most likely site for a casino, said the city needs about $25 million in capital improvement projects it cannot afford, blaming few local taxpayers and a lack of “meaningful reinvestment” in the city’s hospitality industry in 40 or 50 years. The $2.5 million his city would secure in casino tax revenue yearly would bring his community “many opportunities,” noted Newberry.

Krista Watts, one of Lake Ozar’s aldermen, said that when she attended a state municipal league convention, the only four representatives in the room who said they were not struggling to generate revenue had casinos in their communities. She noted that a casino would also benefit the seasonal Lake Ozark economy by creating more year-round jobs

Lake of the Ozarks

The Osage Nation is vying to build a casino in Lake Ozark, but HJR 23 does not affect their development directly because Native American tribes are not subject to state law, notes the cited source. Kimberly Pearson, CEO of the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise Board, said the Osage have purchased land in Lake Ozark and have started the process of clearing it for development.

While some oppose an Osage casino in Lake Ozark because it would not have to pay taxes, potentially giving it an advantage over a possible state casino, Pearson said the Osage would make up what they are not paying in taxes with charitable donations to the community. 

Rocky Miller, a former state representative from Lake Ozark, backed a previous version of the bill but said he was against Knight’s version because it would enshrine gambling license provisions in the state constitution. Miller, who is Native American, also said the assertion that the Osage would take away from the community was “insulting.”

Several Lake of the Ozarks-area residents testified against the bill for fear of a casino bringing crime. Rep. Josh Hurlbert, R-Smithville, and Rep. Jamie Johnson, D-Kansas City, said they do not believe the three casinos in the Kansas City area have created any additional crime in their districts.

For his part, Rick Moss, former mayor of Lake Ozark, said he believed a large casino would attract customers more easily than local businesses and drive them out of the market.