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How do Missouri casinos, like the one proposed at Lake of the Ozarks, get approved? 

  

The Osage Nation is planning to roll the dice on a new casino at the Lake of the Ozarks, potentially opening up a new revenue stream at the popular tourism spot — though a successful outcome is far from guaranteed.  

The proposed 28-acre project along the Bagnell Dam and Highway 54 in Miller County would center around a new hotel complex boasting a casino, entertainment venues, and restaurants. The site would bring a $60 million investment in the local economy, according to the Osage Nation, something local legislators are eyeing with interest. 

“We have established very good relationships with several communities in Missouri and seek to have a presence back in our homeland,” Osage Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said in a statement. 

While Missouri officials are well-versed in the approval process for typical gaming operations, tribal casinos are a matter of federal law. 

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), passed by Congress in 1988, outlined the process for approving a tribal casino off of a reservation. 

Purchased land would be handled by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Osage Nation would then negotiate the responsibilities for providing law enforcement and taxation with the state government — all of which could take several years. 

If any party were to oppose the terms along the way, the project would be dashed. 

Because of the federal framework established by IGRA, the Missouri Legislature would not be required to take action on the proposal. While Lake-area lawmakers have pushed for additional casino licenses in past sessions, Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, who represents the portion of the Lake area that would house the project, said the issue was in the hands of state and federal executives. 

“There are steps that have to be taken, but they aren’t legislative,” Bernskoetter told The Missouri Times. “I hope there would be a positive impact on the Lake area — people are always concerned about the negative impacts of gambling and that sort of thing, but I would imagine it would just be another recreational activity that people could enjoy at the Lake if they chose to.”

Missouri is home to 13 casinos along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, where state-licensed casinos must be located per state law. The state is allowed 13 casino licenses, each of which are accounted for. Those licenses are handled by the Missouri Gaming Commission (MGC) — another entity that finds itself on the sidelines of this unique process. 

Mike Leara, chair of the MGC, said the commission would not be involved in the approval process as its jurisdiction extends to gaming operations on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, but the commission is following the situation and fielding questions as they come up.

A major hurdle for the project could be a clause in the IGRA that requires a tribe to have a reservation in the state to receive approval: Once a prominent tribe in Missouri, the nearest Osage reservation is now in Oklahoma, Leara said. The nation would be required to seek an exemption from the Department of the Interior and enter a compact with the federal, state, and local government, a process Leara said could take years.  

Leara said 17 projects had applied for the same exemption the Osage Nation sought, though six had been denied. 

Ultimately, Leara said he would place his bets on the project taking up to a decade to come to fruition — if it manages to get off the ground at all. 

“I think when this becomes more than a press release and something a little more concrete, we’ll start to see opposition,” Leara told The Missouri Times. “We don’t know where the governor is on this — we’ll likely have a different governor before this goes anywhere anyway. There are a lot of questions and while they did get a lot of attention from their press release, I don’t think it’s anything in the near future.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Parson did not respond to a request for comment on his perspective of the proposal. 

A major component of the process is approval from the community, though the area hasn’t had time to gauge the temperature so far. 

Miller County Presiding Commissioner Tom Wright told The Missouri Times the county hadn’t heard feedback on the proposal yet and noted the most interaction he had with the developers so far was a notice of the plan from the Osage Nation’s attorney. 

Proposals for a casino in the Lake area have come in over the years, though none have come to fruition. Former Rep. Rocky Miller pushed for a constitutional amendment in 2020 to allow a riverboat casino along the Osage River, but the attempt did not progress out of the lower chamber. 

“I think it makes a bigger pie,” Miller said in a statement. “My family has been here 161 years. My great-grandfather worked on the Bagnell Dam project. The area has always been about growth and this is just another method of growth, in my opinion.”

Lawmakers have been mulling the economic benefit of expanding gambling in the state for years. This session saw dueling propositions to legalize sports betting in the Show-Me State, though none made it across the finish line. Another bill seeking to legalize and control video lottery terminals (VLTs) in bars and veteran and fraternal organizations also failed to make it to the Senate floor for perfection.