Casino riverboat laws may soon change
Isle of Capri’s Crown Casino. (AMERICAN PRESS ARCHIVES)
A bill making its way through the Legislature would revamp state riverboat laws by addressing space limitations on casino floors and letting riverboats become land-based.
Senators on April 24 voted 22-14 for Senate Bill 316, by Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, sending it to the House for consideration. It would change a riverboat gambling area from being limited to 30,000 square feet, or 60 percent of the total square footage, to 2,365 “gaming positions.”
Any of the state’s 15 riverboat licensees could apply to become land-based and move “no more than 1,200 feet from their existing berths,” Johns said. A “safety feature” attached to the bill would require a licensee to submit a plan to the Louisiana Gaming Control Board that has “significant economic development,” he said.
“We’re not going to allow some riverboat to move into a warehouse within 1,200 feet of the existing berth and put in slot machines,” Johns said. “The fact that Golden Nugget and L’Auberge both have golf courses, spas and restaurants didn’t come by accident.”
Johns added that L’Auberge Casino Resort and Golden Nugget Casino are already considered land-based casinos. Despite this, he said, the regulations required of a riverboat casino need to be updated.
“It’s ludicrous that we require a $1 billion property like Golden Nugget to cut a ditch out of the side of lakefront, shove in some barges, and put a paddle wheel that, in reality, can’t do anything because there’s no true boat there,” Johns said.
The two recommendations in Johns’ bill came from a gambling task force that met publicly for 17 months with all 15 riverboat licensees, gambling regulators based in Mississippi, maritime safety officials and representatives from chambers of commerce statewide, he said.
The House Criminal Justice Committee is set to hear the bill this week. Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Moss Bluff, sits on the committee and said he supports the bill. An annual report from the Gaming Control Board released last year said riverboats brought in $414,469,178 in net revenue to the state during the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
“I think it brings too much to Southwest Louisiana to oppose it,” he said. “I don’t see it as an expansion of gaming; I see it as bringing regulations in line with 2018.”
Dwight said the pros of the gambling industry, like jobs and revenue for the state, outweigh the cons, like an increase in drugs, crime and prostitution. He said Lake Charles has “elite facilities” that have benefitted the economy.
“We haven’t seen an increase in crime, drugs or prostitution,” Dwight said. “We have seen an increase in traffic and Texas license plates.”
Johns said he has “no evidence of human trafficking arrests in casinos.” The senator has strongly pushed for legislation in past sessions to combat human trafficking.
“If there are, I absolutely condemn it,” he said.
Johns said the Gaming Control Board defined the 30,000-square-foot gambling space limit in 1992. He said gambling space is defined as an area where a machine or table sits, along with the area surrounding a table where a patron sits or stands. It doesn’t include aisle space, restaurants or meeting rooms.
According to numbers obtained by the American Press, as of Dec. 13, Golden Nugget had 2,152 total gambling positions, the most of any riverboat in the state. L’Auberge had 2,133 gambling positions, and Isle of Capri Casino had 1,518. Johns said Isle of Capri has fewer gambling positions because it “realistically doesn’t have enough space” on its riverboat to maximize the 30,000-square-foot limit.
The problem with the current regulation, Johns said, is that newer slot machines are much larger than older models.
“To utilize this new technology, you run the risk of having fewer machines,” he said.
Johns said the task force came up with the 2,365 limit of gambling positions by taking the riverboat property with the largest number of gambling machines, Golden Nugget, and doing a 10 percent factor based on different configurations various licensees use for their table games.
“That number did not come from the gaming industry,” he said.
Johns said the Gaming Control Board will define the number of gambling positions for each riverboat. For instance, a table would be considered as one position, but if 12 people could accommodate the table, it would be defined as having 13 designated gambling positions.
Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, spoke against the legislation on the Senate floor April
24. He mentioned the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino, which has 27,830 square feet of space, but only 879 gambling positions.
“In my book, that’s expansion of gaming,” Allain said of the measure.
Johns countered, saying the physical limitations of an older riverboat, like the Belle of Baton Rouge, don’t provide enough room to maximize the 30,000-square-foot limit of gambling space. He said moving a riverboat to a land-based facility is “an expensive proposition” that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It’s what the market is really going to bear,” he said. “The market in Lake Charles is different than the market for the Belle of Baton Rouge. It’s a waste of resources and money for them to even attempt to go to 2,300 spaces.”
Johns said he and other task force members met with gambling regulators in Atlantic City, N.J., last year to hear about their laws. They also visited a company that is developing new gambling machines and heard of other changes, like internet gambling. He said the trip wasn’t paid for by any casinos.
The trip, Johns said, also gave task force members insight on how Louisiana would handle sports betting. New Jersey filed a lawsuit challenging a federal law that says states can’t permit sports betting. The Supreme Court may rule that the law is unconstitutional. Nevada is the only state that allows sports betting.
Johns said he didn’t feel comfortable pursuing legislation that would allow for sports betting, internet gambling or fantasy sports.
He said those who addressed the task force asked for things that weren’t included in his bill, including Tilman Fertitta, president and CEO of Fertitta Entertainment Inc and owner of the Golden Nugget Casino, who gave a presentation last August.
“When I talk about expansion of gaming, we’re talking about any new form of gambling,” Johns said. “(Fertitta) is entitled to have a wish list. But he is going to play by our rules, and he has respected that.”
No representatives from tribal casinos spoke to the gambling task force during their meetings, but Johns said any officials who would have wanted to speak were welcome. He said he has “great respect” for tribal casinos, including the Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder.
Coushatta had 3,419 gaming positions as of Dec. 13. Tribal casinos aren’t subject to the same regulations as riverboats, something Johns said has posed a problem for Shreveport riverboats, which have lost gambling revenue to tribal casinos in southern Oklahoma and Mississippi.
While it was discussed during the task force meetings, Johns said, his legislation won’t allow minors to access the gambling floor.
He said casinos face “very stiff penalties” from the Gaming Control Board for such infractions. Golden Nugget was fined $60,000 in 2016 for allowing eight minors to access the gambling floor from January and July 2015.
The casino responded by installing barriers and training employees to identify minors and conducting internal sting operations.
‘It’s ludicrous that we require a $1 billion property like Golden Nugget to cut a ditch out of the side of lakefront, shove in some barges, and put a paddle wheel that, in reality, can’t do anything because there’s no true boat there.’
Sen. Ronnie Johns
‘We haven’t seen an increase in crime, drugs or prostitution. We have seen an increase in traffic and Texas license plates.’
Rep. Stephen Dwight
R-Moss Bluff, expressing support for changes to casino laws