Missouri legislature fails to pass sports betting bill, leaving hopes of much-awaited legalization dashed

In a dramatic turn of events, hopes for the legalization of sports betting in Missouri have been dashed for the fifth consecutive legislative session, reaching a dead end on Friday.

Against a backdrop where a Missouri senator drew a striking analogy, comparing the state chamber to a “Darth Vader moment” with the opportunity to choose between good and evil, the fate of legal sports betting took a decisive blow in the Show-Me State.

Following a contentious series of debates and maneuvers, Senator Denny Hoskins, a long-time advocate for tying legal sports wagering to the legalization of video lottery terminals (VLTs), opted not to move forward with SB 92, a bill that had become a political football earlier in the week.

Missouri Senator Denny Hoskins

In the House, Rep. Dan Houx had attached the legalization of sports betting to Hoskins’ Missouri Rural Workforce Development Act and returned it to the Senate for further consideration. The move left Hoskins with a critical decision to make, and amidst a chaotic scene filled with diatribes, lectures, and finger-pointing, he chose to halt the progress of SB 92.

Senate Floor Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, attempting to restore order, implored her peers to opt for a respectful and organized framework for debate rather than the chaos that had ensued in recent days. “What is happening is that we are having senators bring to the floor legislation that they cannot get passed, and in retaliation, they are hanging up the Senate for hours,” O’Laughlin stated.

However, O’Laughlin’s plea seemed to fall on deaf ears, as Senator Bill Eigel, in a mocking tone, ridiculed her reference to “political theater” by invoking a lengthy Star Wars analogy. Prior to Eigel’s remarks, procedural errors had already disrupted the Senate floor, setting the stage for the ensuing chaos.

Eigel had previously initiated what appeared to be the second filibuster attempt of the session around wagering, engaging in a reading of Chapter 4 from a Ronald Reagan biography. In April, Eigel had read the first three chapters during discussions on SB 30, a standalone sports betting bill that Hoskins had sought to amend by authorizing VLTs.

The Senate rejected the amendment, leading to Hoskins’ subsequent filibuster attempt that included the Reagan biography and a lecture on the history of the B-52, prompting one senator to derogatorily refer to the body as “idiots.” 

Regardless of the procedural errors, personality clashes, or political alliances, the outcome remains the same— yet another unsuccessful endeavor to legalize wagering in Missouri. As it stands, seven of Missouri’s eight border states have already legalized sports betting, with the most recent addition being Kentucky in late March.

Hoskins, who pre-filed the first Missouri sports betting bill in 2018, has consistently sought to connect legal wagering with the authorization of VLTs, a notion firmly opposed by local casinos. Despite repeated setbacks, Hoskins has persisted in his push for the inclusion of VLTs in the legislation.

Missouri neighbors Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Tennessee have active sports betting markets, while Kentucky’s law is set to take effect on June 1, with rule promulgation by the regulator. Nebraska’s regulator is also in the process of developing rules, while Oklahoma remains without legal sports betting.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden held Hoskins responsible for the lack of progress and pointed out that it is incumbent upon those supporting the regulation of video slot machines to garner the necessary support among their peers. Rowden urged Hoskins to either find more allies or step aside and allow Missourians to exercise their right to engage in sports betting.

Lawmakers have made several efforts to find a compromise, considering various iterations of deals that would have provided tax relief amounting to half a million dollars or more, alongside the legalization of sports betting. However, the proposed agreements fall through amid the continuous debate around VLT legalization.

The failure to legalize sports betting means that Missouri will continue missing out on significant tax revenue, which could have been allocated to public education and other state priorities. Over 30 states have already legalized sports betting, and in light of the latest setback, St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III has expressed his consideration of organizing a referendum to ask voters in 2024 whether to legalize sports betting in Missouri.