ST. LOUIS — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson says he's not convinced that unregulated and untaxed video gambling terminals in the state are illegal, even as investigators in his administration work to halt their spread.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Parson, who is the former Polk County sheriff, said he is monitoring a Platte County court case that could provide legal guidance to the state's prosecutors on what constitutes a game of chance versus a game of skill.
The video gambling terminals, which work in a fashion similar to slot machines, have been rolled out in truck stops, gas stations and convenience stores across the state. Opponents argue that slot machines are only allowed in casinos. But backers say the machines give players the option of viewing the outcome of a wager before placing a bet.
"We first need to clarify what machines constitute gambling and what machines are video games," Parson told the Post-Dispatch in response to written questions.
The governor's stance is in contrast to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, whose leaders have made a decision. A patrol lieutenant told a state House committee in October that the machines are illegal and that its investigations resulted in dozens of criminal referrals to prosecutors.
Besides the Platte County case, several others have been filed, including one in Parson's home county. Polk County Prosecutor Ken Ashlock said there are no payout requirements for unregulated machines, meaning the operators can keep more money than they could in one of the state's 13 regulated casinos.
"People are just getting cheated on them and they don't know it," he said.
Wildwood-based Torch Electronics is among the most active companies in the video gambling business in Missouri. The firm, owned by Steve Miltenberger, has contributed $20,000 to Parson's election effort. One of the company's lobbyists is Steve Tilley, a former speaker of the Missouri House and a friend of Parson.
The two served together in the Missouri House. When Tilley resigned as speaker in 2012 to become a political consultant, Parson was among his initial clients.
Gregg Keller, a spokesman for Torch and a Missouri GOP operative, did not respond to the Post-Dispatch's request for comment.
In responding to questions from the Post-Dispatch, Parson said gambling should be regulated, but he's also waiting for clarity from the Platte County case, which could take two years to wind through the court system.
"The distinction between chance and skill determining the outcome of a game is fundamental to the legal analysis of whether operation of a machine violates state law. Games of chance are subject to gaming laws, and if the people want to change the gaming laws, they have the ability to do so using the legislative process, through a ballot initiative, or constitutional amendment," the governor said.
Legislation already has been filed to either ban the machines or legalize them to capture tax revenue and impose regulations aimed at safeguarding players from unsavory practices.