Senate OKs moves for riverboat casinos

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<p class="p1">BATON ROUGE — Legislation to allow the state’s 15 riverboat casinos to move on land within 1,200 feet of their berths gained Senate approval Tuesday and moves to the House.

<p class="p1">Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, is sponsor of Senate Bill 316, which was approved 22-14. Southwest Louisiana’s four senators voted for the bill: Johns and Sens. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings; and John Smith, R-Leesville.

<p class="p1">The bill says casinos’ gambling positions can’t exceed 2,365 positions — which would replace a 30,000-square-foot requirement. Although the machines are limited, the newer ones are larger and more technologically advanced, Johns said.

<p class="p1">A task force studied the issue for 17 months and heard from people representing varied interests, Johns said. Although a number of changes were suggested, he said the two approved Tuesday are the only ones being offered.

<p class="p1">The only major change since riverboat casinos opened in 1992, he said, was removal of the cruising requirement. However, they have had to maintain paddlewheels — which will be eliminated if Johns’ bill gains final approval. 

<p class="p1">Johns said relocating the gambling areas has to be an economic development process that will have to be approved by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board. Simply moving into a large warehouse won’t be permitted, he said.

<p class="p1">The three casinos in Calcasieu Parish affected by the changes are the L’Auberge Casino Resort, the Golden Nugget and the Isle of Capri in Westlake. Johns said the two in Lake Charles are the type of resorts that are encouraged by the changes in his legislation.

<p class="p1">Sen. Barry Peacock, R-Bossier City, pleaded for passage of the bill, saying it would help modernize gambling and that the casinos would stay in the same places. 

<p class="p1">Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, spoke in favor of the bill, insisting it isn’t an expansion of gambling as opponents have said. Riverboat casinos are a viable industry for this state, he said, and the state needs the money they pay in taxes. Mississippi and Oklahoma are dying to see Louisiana keep things as they are now, Martiny said.

<p class="p1">Sens. Bret Allain, R-Franklin; Gerald Long, R-Winnfield; and John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, spoke against the bill. Allain said it is an expansion of gambling. Milkovich talked about the money taken out of the state and about the people who get addicted to gambling. Long said he would love to know the human loss because families are losing their jobs and their homes.

<p class="p1">Morrish said the casinos employ thousands of people who have health care and other benefits. He said Sowela Technical Community College has a course designed for the hospitality industry that trains many area students who find jobs in the casino industry.

<p class="p1">Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said lawmakers are obsessed with legislating behavior and that people who want to gamble are going to gamble somewhere.

<p class="p1">Johns was a member of the Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force, which came up with the recommendations. His legislation would require the casinos to make regular reports to legislative bodies about their employment and business hiring practices as they relate to race, gender and Louisiana residency.

<p class="p1">It was reported earlier that the riverboat casinos employ more than 20,000 people and have a payroll of $348 million. The riverboats contribute more than $400 million annually out of the some $900 million in taxes coming from the lottery, the land-based casino in New Orleans, the slot machines at horse racing tracks and video poker.