Editorial: Missouri's lottery needs more advertising dollars and less illegal competition

Are Missouri lawmakers trying to undermine the state lottery? It’s a money spigot for schools, but lottery officials worry it could dry up because the Legislature has slashed its already-modest advertising budget by two-thirds, while failing to address the proliferation of flagrantly illegal video gambling that competes with it. By both their action and inaction, these lawmakers are threatening to reverse the old gambling adage that “the house always wins.”

The reduction in advertising dollars is a penny wise, pound foolish bit of short-sightedness. The lottery delivered more than $330 million to Missouri schools in the last fiscal year, but that kind of return isn’t guaranteed every year. The games must be kept in the public’s eye to continue generating interest in them.

Advertising works, as they say. Private businesses spend from 5% to more than 10% of their gross revenue on advertising and marketing. The lottery’s gross revenue last year was more than $1.5 billion. That means the $1.5 million the department was seeking for advertising was just one-tenth of 1% of its total revenue — and then the GOP-controlled Legislature slashed it to $400,000. What ever happened to that old Republican mantra about running government like a business?

Worse than what lawmakers did to the advertising budget was what they failed to do regarding the illegal video gaming machines proliferating like mushrooms across Missouri. The lottery has enough on its hands with legitimate gambling competitors like the casinos, which certainly peel away lottery business but, like the lottery, contribute to the state budget.

The illegal gaming machines contribute nothing. As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reports, there are at least 14,000 of them (and probably many more) in gas stations, bars and stores, flouting Missouri’s gaming laws every day. Their purveyors claim they aren’t gambling devices, but the whole point of plunking money into them is in hopes of getting more money back. The question of whether that’s gambling hardly requires a law book — just a dictionary.

As the politically connected owners of these machines thumb their noses at Missouri gaming statutes, police, prosecutors and even courts have been unsure how to proceed. What’s needed, badly, is a clear declaration from the Legislature that these unlicensed, untaxed machines are illegal, period. This shouldn’t be a very heavy lift, yet attempts in the last session to finally crack down on those illegal machines never went anywhere.

There’s no evidence that it’s because the machine operators are backed by lobbyist and former state House Speaker Steve Tilley, an ally and fundraiser to Gov. Mike Parson. But that certainly doesn’t look good for the party that prides itself on both fiscal responsibility and “law and order.” While Parson is calling a special session to include utterly inappropriate debate over birth control, perhaps he should consider calling another one to finally get the state’s gaming house in order.


St. Louis Post Dispatch