Bill would let Missouri casinos extend credit to gamblers

Missouri’s casinos want to make it easier for patrons to spend money.

A bill moving through the Legislature would let the state’s 13 casinos issue short-term gambling loans, secured by the gamblers’ bank accounts.

Casino executives say providing credit would help them attract high-end players from other states who don’t want to carry large wads of cash or incur high fees for using credit cards to withdraw money.

“Customers look for convenience when they decide what casinos to visit,” said Troy Stremming, a senior vice president for Ameristar, which operates casinos in St. Charles and Kansas City.

The casino industry has sought the bill for years, but the measure, HB747, appears to have gained momentum this year. With little debate, the House passed it last month on a vote of 132-25.

If the Senate agrees and Gov. Jay Nixon signs it, Missouri will have repealed the last of the safeguards in the original state law that voters passed in 1992 when they legalized riverboat gambling.

Instead of floating on the state’s rivers as originally required, casinos are permanently docked. For gamblers, there is no longer a loss limit of $500 every two hours. Voters approved both changes after casino-funded campaigns.

Casinos also have become heavy donors to legislative campaigns. Ameristar, for example, donated $191,849 to candidates last year, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.

In contrast to the years when expanding gambling sparked passionate debate, the casino credit bill has been moving quietly. Legislators have described it in business terms, both in terms of who would get the credit and why Missouri should allow it.

Rep. Bob Burns, D-south St. Louis County, said the River City casino in Lemay had been a “godsend” to his district because of the jobs and taxes it has pumped into the community.

“All this does is let them give credit to high rollers,” he said. “This is about people who fly their own airplanes. This has nothing to do with people who live paycheck to paycheck.”

The Missouri Baptist Convention offered the only opposition to the bill at a Senate hearing last week. Convention lobbyist Kerry Messer asked legislators to tighten the bill’s focus and prevent casinos from filing suit to take a borrower’s home.

“They say it’s for high rollers, but they never design it for high rollers,” Messer said. “This puts average people at risk.”

Amendments could be offered when the bill comes up for a vote Tuesday in the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and Environment Committee.

Messer hopes senators require customers to qualify for a line of credit of at least $10,000, which he said would help weed out people who can’t afford to go into debt.

Under the House bill, patrons would complete credit applications and undergo credit checks. If approved, a gambler would get a marker, or promissory note, agreeing to repay the money within 30 days. No interest would be charged.

The patron would exchange the marker for electronic tokens and chips to wager at the casino. If the money wasn’t repaid in 30 days, the casino could take the money out of the borrower’s checking account.

“It’s not a loan,” said Stremming, the Ameristar executive. “It’s the exact equivalent of writing a check.”

Neil Walkoff, executive vice president of regional operations for Pinnacle Entertainment, told the Senate committee that Pinnacle had had few problems with bad debt in the states where it was allowed to extend credit.

“We are very judicious in making sure that people have the appropriate amount of funds and they have the ability to pay that back,” he said.

Pinnacle operates the Lumiere Place casino in St. Louis and River City casino in south St. Louis County.

Increasing tourism from out of state was the main reason supporters cited for passing the bill.

Lobbyist John Bardgett, speaking for the St. Louis County Economic Council and the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, said tourism officials had told him that when they recruit groups, one of the first questions asked was whether the St. Louis area has casinos and, “Is credit available?”

Bardgett is also a registered lobbyist for Pinnacle.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the city of St. Louis weighed in to support the bill.

Extending credit is a standard industry practice, said the sponsor, Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County.

Of the 14 states that have land-based or riverboat casinos, only four bar casinos from granting credit, according to the Missouri Gaming Association, a casino trade group.

Besides Missouri, the others with prohibitions on loans are Colorado, Iowa and Kansas. Casino credit is allowed in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Illinois casinos use the same lending standards that a business such as Sears would use if a customer wanted to buy a washing machine, said Gene O’Shea, spokesman for the Illinois Gaming Board.

“It has to be done in a commercially viable manner,” he said.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said that although she was undecided on the bill, she didn’t believe it would harm lower-income gamblers.

“I don’t think many of those poor people are going to be eligible,” she said. “That particular bill will be targeted for people coming from out of town — baseball players, rappers like Lil Wayne. After his concert, he may want to spend $30,000 (gambling) on a boat. That’s his prerogative.”

The bill doesn’t allow collateral to be pledged toward the loan. But the debt would be “enforceable by legal process,” meaning the casino could go to court to recover its money.

That provision troubles Messer, of the Baptist Convention. He said a casino could “extend you the credit because they know you’re sitting on a piece of property they could get” in court.

Gamblers could also get behind on rent, house payments or child support if they piled up casino debts, said Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City.

Keith Spare, chairman of the Missouri Council on Problem Gambling Concerns, said that if legislators were going to allow credit at casinos, they should also increase funding for counseling for addicted gamblers.

“When you make it easier to gamble, you need to increase the safety net,” he said.