I ’ve got a tip for you: There’s some heavy action underway at the Capitol on a cluster of gambling bills.
If you’re involved in the process or just watching from afar, you can’t miss them; amid the Legislature’s huddled masses of policy proposals, they’re the high-rolling VIPs of the ongoing regular session.
And, no, it’s not gambling. It’s gaming.
In 1992, the Louisiana Legislature was tasked with creating a land-based casino in New Orleans. The House and Senate had an enormous problem — our Constitution. It states that gambling should be “defined by and suppressed” by the Legislature.
What did lawmakers do? They created gaming, on paper, by dropping two letters!
Words are awesome.
(Seriously, don’t blame the Legislature alone. For its part, the state Supreme Court upheld that lawmakers did not have to suppress the land-cased casino because it was a form of gaming, not gambling.)
While there wasn’t much talk about our land-locked mini-Vegas at the turn of the year, there was a great deal of chatter about our motionless paddlewheels that push the same games of chance. And there was a reason for that.
As Christmas gave way to Mardi Gras, it seemed as if a riverboat gambling task force was carving out a policy lane for a substantive overhaul of laws related to the industry. Influencers knew that there hadn’t been a thorough review of riverboat statutes since the 1990s. In fact, that factoid resonated in the always-cluttered echo chamber of Baton Rouge.
Understandably, the riverboat folks were feeling bullish as 2018 replaced 2017. Yet so were the racetrack folks and the video gambling folks and the land-based casino folks. They saw the same policy lane, too, and wondered if everyone could fit.
The response came in the form of roughly 40 bills related to gambling operations that were introduced for the regular session. Today, about a month into the process, some of the once-bullish folks behind these bills are finding the task force’s perceived policy lane to be a bit narrower than anticipated.
A half-dozen bills already have been shot down or spiked by lawmakers, and several others will be parked soon by video gambling interests. A few more are backup bills or instruments that were never intended to move. But don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re all duds.
A handful of the bills bring with them political drama in the form of vocal opponents going all in against cash-fueled government relations teams.
Two bills in particular have risen to the top of the heap in terms of political activities and the potential for enacting big changes. One is for Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino and another is for the state’s 15 riverboat casinos.
The separate fates of both bills also have turned on issues and personalities not directly related to the objectives or scopes of the proposals, which is usually the case with heavy-action legislation.
Everyone knew Harrah’s meant business when the author of HB 553, which contains Harrah’s contract extension and much more, was revealed to be Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.
Few could have guessed that the highest hurdle on the House floor was going to be built by rural legislators.
As Barras’ bill arrived on the floor last month, it stipulated that when Harrah’s pays the state its cut of gross casino revenue, anything above $63.6 million would be divided equally between New Orleans and the Community Water Enrichment and Other Improvements Fund, which is favored by rural lawmakers.
That 50-50 split was amended into 70 percent for the fund and 30 percent for the city when rural lawmakers pushed back. The Harrah’s legislation is now in the Senate Judiciary B Committee — and amendments to flip the script on the House’s water fund amendment are expected. Rural House members, however, are digging in for their share, especially after years of cutbacks to the state construction budget.
The fund not only addresses rural water-related needs, but it also serves as a “grants program for local governments to assist with capital, infrastructure and other projects.” How rural senators will react to this language could be key to how policy discussions progress.
The other heavy-action gambling proposal comes courtesy of Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, who steered the work of last year’s riverboat gambling task force. His SB316 would allow the state’s 15 riverboats to move onto land and restructure their gambling spaces.
The proposal has been pending final passage on the Senate floor for more than two weeks, but the vote counts haven’t reached a comfortable level for supporters. Another delay came last week as Democrats injected the importance of a higher minimum wage into conversations about the riverboat bill. (Johns voted against a minimum wage bill last month that failed to get off of the floor after a group of Republicans flipped positions, to the negative.
There also are two bills to move riverboats to Tangipahoa and Ouachita parishes, but they’re starting to look like Hail Mary passes. Bills to legalize sports betting look dicey as well and the video gambling industry is down to just one or two proposals for changes at truck stops.
Depending on the mood of the Legislature, there could be some alterations to the way gambling-related referendums are handled. And that’s pretty much it.
Look, Louisiana already rolled the dice once on gambling — um, I mean gaming. The Legislature may as well find a way to enhance those job-creating engines without actually expanding the footprint of gambling in the Bayou State.
There’s no reason to fold now.