A House committee considered a bill Wednesday evening 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. Missouri has 13 casinos on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, 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.
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. He blamed few local taxpayers and a lack of “meaningful reinvestment” in the city’s hospitality industry in 40 or 50 years.
Newberry said the $2.5 million his city would secure in casino tax revenue yearly would bring his community many opportunities.
Krista Watts, one of Lake Ozark’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.
“The challenge that we have before us with 2,000 people but yet seeing millions of visitors a year is, how do we fund our infrastructure?” she said.
Watts said a casino would also benefit the seasonal Lake Ozark economy by creating more year-round jobs.
Don Abbett, a Miller County commissioner, said his community did not seek casinos — they were dropped in its lap. He said he only supports HJR 23 because he would rather have a state-approved casino in Lake Ozark than the alternative.
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. 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.
Abbett said he did not support having an Osage casino in Lake Ozark because it would not have to pay taxes, giving it an unfair advantage over a possible state casino and not supporting the community.
Pearson said the Osage would make up what they are not paying in taxes with charitable donations to the community. She said the Osage have made several donations.
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, said the assertion that the Osage would take away from the community was insulting.
“To say that one does not contribute to the community and the other one does, that’s an out-and-out lie,” Miller said.
Bryce Crowley, legal counsel for the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise Board, said tribal casinos have been an economic boon in Oklahoma, where all casinos are owned by tribes.
“‘The number of gaming tables in an Oklahoma county is significantly related to large increases in median household income and large decreases in the unemployment rate, level of violent crime and level of property crime,’” Crowley said, reading a 2013 study of tribal casinos in the state.
Several Lake of the Ozarks-area residents testified against the bill for fear of a casino bringing crime. Pam White said a casino would attract criminals and erode safety. She criticized putting the issue up as a statewide ballot measure.
“What right do the citizens of Kansas City and St. Louis have to dictate how we live here at the Lake of the Ozarks?” she asked. “We don’t want the prostitution, the sex trafficking and the drugs that plague their cities.”
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.
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.
This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.
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