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Lawmaker suggests constitutional amendment for Osage River casino

by Samir Knox | March 10, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The House Emerging Issues Committee considered another amendment to the Missouri Constitution that would expand riverboat gambling in Missouri.

The bill was strongly supported by the mayor of Lake Ozark, Dennis Newberry. Newberry, who testified Wednesday night during a hearing on House Joint Resolution (HJR) 23, said the Board of Aldermen for Lake Ozark unanimously supported the bill.

"Our community has 90 miles of roads, sewer and water infrastructure and 2,000 residents to pay for (those 90 miles). We have been missing economic development on a major scale for decades in our community," Newberry said. "What this resolution would allow is for a Missouri licensed casino to be located on the Osage River. The likely place for that to happen would be in Lake Ozark because we're the only meaningful town on the Osage River."

HJR 23, proposed by Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, would ask voters to approve "lotteries, gift enterprises and games of chance" on a portion of the Osage River from the Missouri River to Bagnell Dam. The amendment would authorize excursion gambling boats and "floating facilities" along the river.

When presenting the bill to the committee, Knight was questioned by Rep. Holly Jones, R-Eureka, as to why a lawmaker from Lebanon would propose a bill regarding a location out of his jurisdiction.

"I was asked to carry this bill," Knight said. "Any time something gets put to the vote of the people to decide whether or not they want it, I'm in support of it."

Knight said the support of the bill in the community was mixed, with some being in favor and some against the expansion of gambling in the area. Knight said many would be in favor of keeping taxes invested in the community.

Newberry dismissed some of the criticisms levied against casino and gambling development, saying they were based on research tailored to a larger city and not a small community like Lake Ozark. Newberry said the Isle of Capri Casino in Boonville brought more than $10 million in capital improvements to the city.

"A $100 million project in our community would represent $2.5 million in taxes ... $2.5 million, in a town that has $25 million of capital improvement projects right now, is probably the only way we're ever going to get them done," Newberry said.

There are currently 13 licenses for gaming authorized by the Missouri Gaming Commission and, if passed, the resolution would authorize a 14th license to be granted at an undetermined location between where the Missouri River meets the Osage River and Bagnell Dam.

Newberry also mentioned that he, personally, owned property along this corridor.

Les Larson, a resident of Sunrise Beach, testified against the bill. Larson was concerned that neither Knight nor Sen. Justin Brown, R-Laclede County, who proposed a similar resolution in the Senate, were from the area in question.

"Neither one of these individuals represent that district. ... That bothers me a lot, that you would have two individuals come forth and push forth this bill, and they don't even represent that area," Larson said.

Larson also raised issue with the idea of passing the bill as a constitutional amendment, saying that it allowed too many Missourians from outside the area to vote on issues along the river.

Timothy Faber, a representative for the Missouri Baptist Convention, testified against the bill. Faber shared the concerns about representatives from outside the region proposing bills in the Lake Ozark area, but also had religious objections.

"Gambling of any kind is contrary to a good work ethic that values self-reliance and self-determination rather than chance.," Faber said. "The exploitation of others for personal gain is unethical and immoral and caring for one's fellow citizens means desiring their well-being. With gambling, the odds just are not in their favor."

Krista Watts, an alderman of Lake Ozark, was supportive of the bill, saying it would help them generate income and investment into her relatively small town.

Mike Egan, an Osage Beach resident, had a unique objection to the bill. He was skeptical that a new gambling development in the area would draw people from outside the Central Missouri area.

"Pathological gamblers cost society an average of $13,586 per victim, annually," Egan said. "This casino is going to draw within a 50-mile radius, that would include Jefferson City and Lebanon. You're talking about 100, maybe 150,000 people. If just two percent of the people in that population area become pathological gamblers, that's a $27 million hit and nobody back there is talking about it."

Don Abbott, Miller County First District Commissioner, testified in favor of the resolution. Abbott was concerned that, when faced with the inevitability of a casino, the planned Osage Nation casino would not adequately contribute to the county's tax base and that another one which paid local taxes was necessary.

"Miller County did not go out looking for a casino, this has been dropped in our lap," Abbott said. "We are faced in a dilemma here in Miller County, we have a small section of the Lake of the Ozark that generates most of the revenue in Miller County."

Abbott said the county would ideally have no casino. However, given the county's current predicament, he said the county would prefer a local taxpaying business rather than an Osage Nation casino.

Throughout the hearing, witnesses were divided, disagreeing about the potential harms that could come from introducing a riverboat casino to Lake Ozark. Witnesses from both sides continually spoke about the resolution for more than two hours.

The bill must now be passed through the committee in executive session, after which it will be assigned to a House rules committee.

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