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Missouri has a gambling problem.

Maybe it is more of a question. Devices that look and work a lot like slot machines are flooding into gas stations, convenience stores and restaurants. The Missouri Gaming Commission says the devices often found in those locations are illegal. The governors says maybe not, despite the commission’s decision and Missouri State Highway Patrol investigations and criminal referrals made against businesses in which the devices have been installed.

Missouri regulates gambling, taxing it and limiting it to riverboat casinos. It also monitors slot payout percentages in the casinos. The devices popping up in other locations are operated without complying to those regulations.

The biggest distributor of the machines, Torch Electronics, has aggressively marketed the games. It says the terminals are not gambling devices because a player has the option of checking the outcome of a wager by clicking an icon before continuing play, thereby removing the element of chance, though players are not required to click the icon before completing the play.

Torch employs politically connected lobbyists and high-powered consultants. The company has made campaign donations to key political players, including at least $20,000 to Gov. Mike Parson, according to a July report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The fact that criminal cases are going forward while the governor questions whether the devices are in fact illegal highlights the problem. Torch and similar companies distributing the devices are skirting the edges of the gambling laws in Missouri and appear to be trying to game the system through political influence.

The Missouri House held special hearings into the machines and unregulated gambling this past summer, and the Senate is looking at a plan to ban the terminals outright.

This is an issue of the letter of the law versus the intent of the law. The Missouri General Assembly must resolve the matter, to permit these games or to clearly ban them.

Legislators should act quickly in this session to regulate these machines.

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