Lawmaker: Vets' clubs deserve part of gambling pie

KANSAS CITY, Mo. | A suburban Kansas City lawmaker whose bid to get a casino in his community was iced by a November ballot measure is skeptical about numbers in the state's January casino revenue report.

Still, Sugar Creek Democratic Rep. Ray Salva says if the state's casinos really did see a 10 percent jump in revenue, that boosts his argument that Missouri fraternal and veterans organizations should get a piece of the pie.

Salva has introduced a measure that would allow Class II slot machines in veterans halls like the VFW or American Legion, and in fraternal organizations such as the Elks, Eagles and Moose. He said the organizations would have to be nationally chartered to prevent groups from forming a so-called veterans organization just so they could have slots.

The devices would be allotted at the rate of one per 40 members of each organization under the bill.

"Veterans organizations are hurting right now," he said. "So many veterans are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and need help, but the organizations can't keep up."

Salva on Tuesday questioned the state's January gambling report that showed an 11 percent increase in patrons over January 2008 and a 10 percent increase in revenues, to nearly $146 million.

He said Wednesday that he had no proof that the Missouri Gaming Commission is fudging the numbers.

But after what he called "misleading" information about November's Proposition A — a voter-approved measure that repealed loss limits at casinos, put a moratorium on new casinos and raised taxes on existing casinos — he doesn't believe much of anything the commission says.

"All the people I know — and I know numerous people in the casinos industry — they're telling me that they're hurting for patrons," Salva said.

Salva said if Missouri's gambling revenues are growing so much, the casinos should have no problem with a few slot machines being installed at veterans clubs and fraternal lodges.

"Let's say casinos are telling the truth," he said. "If there's a 10 percent increase, that's more ammunition to get HB566 passed. Why would they care if the American Legion has some of those games?"

Salva, who wants a casino in his Kansas City suburb, was a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Proposition A. But a federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the secretary of state's decision to place the measure on the ballot, and Salva said the case probably will end up before the Supreme Court.

Gambling officials insist the January numbers are accurate and reflect what they thought would happen when the state's loss limits and boarding pass requirements were repealed.

"According to his thinking, we're collecting more money than we should be," said Gene McNary, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission. "That's kind of absurd. We audit the casinos and reconcile with the Department of Revenue. It's not that complicated."

Despite the repeal of the loss limit, the average patron lost $69.27 at the state's casinos in January — not much of a variation from months when the cap was still in place.

The difference is attendance. The casinos reported about 205,000 more customers this January than last.

The biggest jump was in the St. Louis market, where the newest casino, Lamiere Place, saw a 43 percent increase in attendance and Ameristar's St. Charles casino had a 19 percent hike.

Meanwhile, just across the river in Illinois, statewide casino revenues in January were down 9.28 percent from January 2008 and attendance was down 6.78 percent. That includes a 14.96 percent drop in both revenues and attendance at Argosy's Alton Belle casino.

Troy Stremming, a vice president for Ameristar Casinos Inc., said Missouri's St. Louis market is thriving for several reasons, including quality of casinos, removal of the loss limit and Illinois' smoking ban.

"I think it shows that we're getting people into the casinos that haven't been there in the past," he said.

Stremming said he has concerns about Salva's bill because slot machines at fraternal and veterans clubs would not have the same oversight as the casinos do, and the state would have to pick up about a $1.3 million tab for enforcement under the House measure.

But he said the casinos aren't worried about losing gamblers to such facilities. He noted that he was in Las Vegas on Tuesday when the public hearing on Salva's measure took place, and that he hasn't spoken publicly in opposition to it.

"I'm shocked that bill is getting momentum right now," Stremming said. "It's a substantial expansion in gaming in the state."

Salva accused Stremming of being more concerned about sending gambling revenues to "fat cats" in Las Vegas than about helping Missouri veterans groups and keeping some of that money in the state.

"If Troy Stremming comes out against this, he's going to see a lot of veterans protesting at his casinos," Salva said. "He has no idea what he's up against here. I'm calling him anti-American."