Electronic gaming device (copy)

Missouri estimates that more than 14,000 unlicensed gambling devices operate in the state, including St. Joseph. 

Every Missouri casino ended the first half of the 2021 fiscal year with a drop in year-over-year admissions, with some falling more than 40%. In St. Joseph, the Frontier Casino was off 24%.

Revenue fared better, which may equate to fewer gamblers losing more. It was down 10% statewide and 9% at the casino in St. Joseph.

Much of this could be blamed on the coronavirus pandemic. A casino can’t make money if it’s closed, and some customers still have reservations about venturing out.

But part of it is due to the increase in other gambling options. It used to be that your grandparents saved for a trip to Las Vegas, but then casino gambling spread to states all across America, including Missouri in 1994. That trip got a lot easier for the customer, and more communities got a share of the pie.

Now, instead of a trip to one of 13 riverboat casinos in the state, a game of video poker or a pull on the slots is as close as a nearby gas station or truck stop.

It’s not legal, but that hasn’t stopped unregulated gaming devices from proliferating across the state, including several locations in St. Joseph.

Some may say “hurrah” for the little guy who can now compete with the regulated casino, but this is short-sighted. Unregulated devices lack the consumer controls on payouts that exist in riverboat gambling. They don’t have the Missouri State Highway Patrol looking over their shoulders. Not only does the revenue from unregulated machines exclude schools, local communities and problem gambling programs, but each one also takes market share from licensed facilities that were established to provide entertainment as well as a public benefit.

This represents a failure of regulators and legislators to keep pace with technology. Once again, Missouri lawmakers will contemplate legislation this year to prohibit these illegal devices, with some proposals even going so far as to revoke the liquor licenses of those businesses that welcome them.

There’s little excuse this year, because Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd prevailed in a closely watched case that found one device company was guilty of promoting illegal gambling.

Missouri wouldn’t tolerate an illegal, unregulated marijuana market to exist side by side with its regulated medical cannabis industry. Even the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation steps in to curb some of the trading frenzy surrounding GameStop stock.

Yet on gambling, it’s the law of the jungle. Failing to take action on this issue makes no sense, because these devices ultimately take resources from local communities and employees of licensed facilities. The only losing hand is inaction.