Boats? / by Matthew Sims

During the course of research on nearly every episode there are always tangential angles to a story that you’d like to follow, but can’t.  Sometimes it’s a dead-end, or you can’t dig up all of the info you need to make a point. In those cases, you simply have to leave them alone and move on.  But there are other things you find that are fascinating in their own right, but don’t actually contribute to your overall story. In those cases, it becomes something pursued solo for another time, or just forgotten in the light of the bigger story.  

But as you learned in our most recent episode sometimes you just can’t let a thing go.  Something is too good, too weird, or in this case, too aggravating to let slip. For me, this has to do with Missouri’s unusual law about casinos.  It’s simple on its face, but as with anything that falls under the umbrella of Blinders Off, there is something more. In this case, the phenomenon of the “Boat in a Moat.”  

As you might have guessed from our previous outings, I’m not a person who can let an absurdity slide.  I have to know. And in this case, I wanted to understand how one can describe a non-moving structure, that is only sorta-kinda in the water, as a boat.   It boggles my mind. I didn’t exactly lose sleep over the subject, but I spent a great deal of time metaphorically bouncing my head off the wall of this concept.  

But I’m a reasonable person (if not a touch paranoid) so I decided I needed to understand the legal mechanisms that allow for this.  And thus, we have to backtrack a bit. We can’t start in the present, and must examine how casinos got a start here.  

In 1992, Proposition A passes by 62%  This law, in part, “Authorizes riverboat gambling excursions on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, regulated by the State Tourism Commission. Excursions may originate where locally approved by the voters.”  

Excursion.  That’s an interesting word here.  Excursion implies that a vehicle should be travelling, in this case, a boat on a river, right?  So let’s jump off there.  

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune dating from July of 1994, there were two original casino boats in Missouri: Casino St. Charles (cleverly named, since it was in St. Charles) and the President Casino on The Admiral (moored in St. Louis, a boat with its own history and deserving its own whole article.)  According to the Tribune, “Two-hour cruises or gambling sessions are held daily from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. The riverboat has a capacity of 2,000 and is restricted to adults 21 or older.”  

Cruises or gambling sessions?  That’s awfully vague, right? Here is where the whole story get bizarre.  In a Los Angeles Time article from January of 2008, learn more about the concept of the “boat in moats.”  According to the times, the description of gambling “boats” had changed from actual vessels, rather they were “...more like buildings than vessels, connected to land by power cables, plumbing lines and data circuits. They never leave the dock; one doesn’t even have engines. Many of them aren’t directly on the Missouri or the Mississippi itself, but in shallow ponds filled with piped-in river water.  The boats exist by virtue of certain fictions created by law or regulation since Missouri approved gambling on the water in 1992.” The article goes on, “Over the years, the Legislature changed the law to allow boats to float in basins filled with river water situated no more than 1,000 feet from the main channel. Lawmakers acted under heavy lobbying from boat operators, who wanted to avoid river cruises, citing safety concerns such as heavy river traffic, low railroad bridges and swift currents.”

So it finally feels like we are getting somewhere, if only slightly.   “Certain fictions created by law.” It smacks a little Orwellian, but that’s a pretty powerful phrase.  So long as the structure is on the water, and has water flowing around it, it’s a boat, right? And the safety concerns make sense; the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are powerful, with depths of thirty feet near St. Louis, and is sometimes dotted with barges and bridges that make a pleasure cruise difficult, let alone a large vehicle like The Admiral.  So there is some perfectly understandable reasons behind why you might not want regular cruises every two hours with multiple ships.  

But a large building in a pond is not a boat, right?  Hard to ignore that fact.  

So why can’t we just have casinos on land like other places?  Why the need for a “certain fiction created by law?  

There comes a point in every researcher’s life when you have to admit that you are out of your own wheelhouse.  You need to talk to the experts. First order of the Gaming Commission. 

The Missouri Gaming Commission, or MGC, enforces all laws relating to gambling in Missouri.  They were an invaluable resource in our research for our Bingo episode in understanding the charitable element of Bingo fits into the picture, so I decided to ask for their assistance.  They did inform me of the law regarding casinos, that they must lie within 1,000 feet of the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. So when I asked for clarification, they told me this: “If you Google it you will find articles on the Missouri Riverboat Gambling Act- which was a referendum put before voters. Some speculate using riverboat gaming casinos would be more appealing to the voters.”  This might seem like an unsatisfactory answer, but you have to remember that the MGC, as pointed out in our episode, does not interpret the law, they merely enforce it. So I would need to pursue other opinions.  

I reached out to Marc Ellinger, a lawyer in Missouri who has experience in Gaming law.  He graciously agreed to be interviewed to help understand the mechanical side of this process.


Blinders Off: Can you give a plain explanation of Missouri's laws about casinos, and where they can exist?  

Marc Ellinger:  In Missouri casinos (or “excursion riverboat gaming facilities”) are authorized by Sections 313.800, et seq, RSMo. and Article III, Section 39(e) of the Missouri Constitution.  Those casinos may exist on the Missouri or Mississippi rivers (or in artificial basins within 1000 feet of the Missouri or Mississippi rivers). The statutory system allows both table games and slot machines and all operations are subject to the jurisdiction of the Missouri Gaming Commission.

BO: What are the origins of Missouri's casino laws?

ME: In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s a wave of riverboat gaming laws were authorized across the United States (and especially in the Midwest).   In 1992, Missouri voters approved Proposition A which allowed riverboats to cruise on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and conduct gaming operations.   The General Assembly re-wrote that law in 1993, creating the Missouri Gaming Commission (as opposed to the Tourism Commission under the voter approved measure) and changing many of the terms of Proposition A.   The constitutional amendment was passed in 1994 due to a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that held that table games were games of skill but slot machines were games of chance (and therefore lotteries) which were prohibited by Article III, Section 39(9).   The effect of that amendment was to allow slot machines. In 1998, a further amendment specified that riverboats could be in artificial basins within 1000 feet of the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. More recently, voters in 1998 capped the number of licenses to 13. 

BO: In our most recent episode we touch on the "Boat in a Moat" phenomenon. How does that work? In to a legal layman, a casino in a moat seems to not be a boat. What is the legal justification for this?  

ME: This arose out of litigation (and threatened litigation) over the original requirement that the riverboats be on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.   The cruising or docked boats created logistical and safety issues and the investments were so large that the artificial basins were preferred. Instead of just allowing true land anchored casino’s the amendment in 1998 was designed to somewhat follow the intent of voters that gaming would be on riverboats.   The amendment passed and no the majority of the boats are in an artificial basin (with water in it) and the casino floors actually are on barges “floating” in those basins.

BO: Amendment Six passed in 1994, allowing for Riverboat gambling. How has the law (or the enforcement of the law) has changed since then?  

ME: In addition to what has been discussed above, there have been a few substantive changes.  Originally, there was a 2 hour limit on how long a gaming floor could be open and a corresponding $500 loss limit per period (“cruise”).  Both of those requirements were repealed and lead to increased revenues. The tax rates have also been slightly increased. Enforcement of the law is controlled by the Missouri Gaming Commission, which has 5 members appointed by the Governor, and its staff.    Depending upon the Commissioners and the staff, enforcement changes but only by degree not by substance.

BO: In your opinion, is there a chance of casinos moving to dry land in the future, or are "Boats in Moats" here to stay?  

ME: In the near future, Boats in Moats are here to stay.   Only far into the future is there a real shot at a change, due to the current investments that have been made by the owners and operators of the 13 current riverboats.

In the end, this entire subject has largely wrapped up neatly.  On the whole, the process of gambling and charitable gaming is conducted and controlled in a "by the book" manner.  Whether you agree with the "Boat in a Moat" phenomenon, it is in accordance with Missouri law. I still think it's ridiculous.  They aren't boats. But they are also a source of steady tax income for the state. In 2018, Casinos have brought in literally hundreds millions of dollar and employed over 8,000 people  Once again, another story of the government basically working as designed for a change.  Too many stories like this, and I might have to change my entire disposition.