Missouri Senator Rizzo Sees Longer Road to Legal Sports Betting in Show-Me State

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Sen. John Rizzo doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to sit around doing nothing. Even when the Missouri Senate is not in session, like now, he’s busy. Papers were shuffling and doors opening and closing on Wednesday when Gaming Today caught up with him to ask when Missouri will pass legal sports betting.

That probably won’t happen until at least 2025, said Rizzo. The reason? There will be some turnover in the Missouri Senate in Jan. 2025, he said, including his own seat. It is also the year that another senator, named Denny Hoskins, will be term-limited out of the Senate.

Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, and a contingent of fellow lawmakers have vocally used sports betting as a bargaining chip for legalization of gas station video slots over the past two years. Bills to legalize sports betting in Missouri have passed the House but failed in the Senate each of the past two years due to the video slots issue.

Rizzo didn’t blame Hoskins specifically for what’s happened, or not happened, with Missouri sports betting. The Senate Minority Floor Leader told Gaming Today that the sports betting holdup is as simple as two gambling groups – video slots operators and casinos – wanting the same dollar. And each group is fighting for that through the legislature.

“When the casinos try to set up the infrastructure for sportsbooks the people who are pro-VLT (video lottery terminal, another name for video slots) stop that. And whenever the VLTs try (to advance) the casinos try to stop that,” said Rizzo.

Legislative Action May Be ‘Best Resolution’ for Sports Betting in Missouri

Of course, a Missouri sports betting bill is only one way to legalize sportsbooks in Missouri. Initiatives can also be put on the ballot by legislative resolution or by citizen petition. Rizzo said passage of a legislative resolution would (like a sports betting bill) probably have a better shot in 2025, too, although that would push a ballot vote into 2026 – the next statewide election year.

Latest attempt to legalize sports betting in Missouri comes up short.
Chiefs fans continue to wait for Missouri to legalize sports betting (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

A legislative resolution to put sports betting on the ballot next year “I would imagine … would suffer the same fate as any other kind of legalization because of the filibusters,” he told Gaming Today.

Pro sports teams including the Royals and Cardinals have said they are considering a petition drive to put legal sports betting on the ballot in 2024. If a petition drive has enough signatures to make the ballot next year and succeeds at the polls, sports betting will become legal. No enabling legislation (a bill to add ballot-approved provisions to statute) will be required, keeping the legislature out of it.

But casinos and teams should make sure they have the votes before they go that route, said Rizzo.

“The last thing you want to do is put it on the ballot, spend a million or two dollars getting the signatures and doing all that work, and then [lose] by 20 points. Because then it really is dead,” he said. “So there are some aspects to it that the resolution through the legislature would be the best resolution, but it’s just a situation of how many are going to continue to stop it from happening.”

No decision to start a sports betting ballot initiative has been announced by any Missouri pro sports team to date.

Partisan Lines are Fuzzy

Last week, the Kansas City Star quoted Rizzo as blaming “Republicans” for keeping legal sportsbooks out of Missouri. “It seems no matter which way you turn, Republicans are there to stop the legalization of sports wagering,” Rizzo said. Rizzo repeated those frustrations on Wednesday.

But he also admitted that partisan lines are fuzzy.

There are Missouri Republicans who want legal sports betting. They include Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden and House Speaker Dean Plocher, who pushed for passage this year. One of the bills filibustered by Hoskins’ contingent last session belonged to Senate Majority Floor Leader Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican. Most opposition, said Rizzo, comes from the rural parts of the state.

Video slots at rural gas stations, truck stops, and local gathering spots are popular, he said, They are also moneymakers for VLT operators.

“Video lottery terminals in rural Missouri is what it comes down to,” he said. “Rural Missouri folks want to be able to go to their gas stations and play slot machines instead of having to drive an hour to the nearest casino, and casinos want them to keep driving that hour, and VLT operators aren’t going to let them pass sportsbook to bolster their business until they are on board with (legalizing VLTS) in some form.”

Other Issues Under Debate

Another issue slowing legalization of Missouri sports betting is moral opposition to gambling by some statewide groups. Rizzo pointed out that – despite support for sports betting and VLT regulation among some of its members – the Missouri Republican Party includes opposition to expanded gambling in its party platform.

It’s a position that conservative groups like the Missouri Baptist Convention supports. The MBC opposes both video slots and sports betting, according to a March issue of the MBC’s newspaper The Pathway, which flagged the fact that at least six gambling bills filed during the 2023 legislative session were filed by Republicans.

Key members of the Missouri General Assembly’s Republican leadership were behind those bills. “Even though the Missouri Republican party platform states that the party opposes the expansion of gambling beyond what is already allowed in Missouri,” MBC spokesperson Dr. Timothy Faber.

Rizzo said some Republican lawmakers explain their support for video slots as support for small businesses to engage in a type of gambling that is already offered (although at a different level) at casinos. Sports betting, however, is not offered legally anywhere in the state.

“The bottom line is it continues to be a standoff every year,” Rizzo said. But he hopes sports betting’s time will come.

“I am asked constantly ‘Why can’t you all get sports betting right?’ Especially at football season, especially in Kansas City where we’re winning Super Bowls right now, and Kansas City Chiefs fans want to bet on the Super Bowl, on the playoffs, or Patrick Mahomes, or whatever it might be, so it’s ridiculous in my opinion,” he said.

“I do believe that if you could ever get to a straight up and down vote on sportsbook it would happen.”

About the Author
Rebecca Hanchett

Rebecca Hanchett

Legislative Writer
Based in Kentucky's Bluegrass region, Rebecca Hanchett is a political writer who covers legislative developments at Gaming Today. She worked as a public affairs specialist for 23 years at the Kentucky State Capitol. A University of Kentucky grad, Hanchett has been known to watch UK. basketball from time to time.

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