Bill to allow riverboat casinos to move off water advances

The gambling bill would also eliminate the need for motor-driven paddle wheels, which serve no useful purpose since the riverboats quit sailing years ago.

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BATON ROUGE — A House committee sent a Senate gambling bill to the full House on Wednesday that would allow the state’s 15 riverboat casinos to move off the water to within 1,200 feet of their current berths. It would also eliminate their motor-driven paddle wheels, which serve no useful purpose since the boats quit sailing years ago.

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice voted 10-4 to approve the bill. It passed the Senate earlier with a 22-14 vote.

Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Moss Bluff and a member of the committee, voted for the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur. Dwight said the legislation isn’t an expansion of gambling but a modernization of its operations. He said gambling revenues of over $900 million supplanted oil and gas revenues of $581 million last year.

Dwight will handle the bill for Johns when it comes up for House debate. Johns said the legislation is the product of the Riverboat Economic Development Gaming Task Force, which studied the issue for 17 months. He said little study of riverboat gambling has been done since the industry was approved in 1992. 

The task force’s goal, Johns said, was to determine how the 15 riverboat casinos limited by law could keep up with gambling in other states. Both the task force and the people it interviewed represented a variety of interests, he said.

“There were a lots of wants and wishes,” he said, but only two changes were recommended and they were approved unanimously. Sports betting and internet gambling were also studied, and some gambling interests wanted both. But Johns said they represent an expansion of gambling and that his legislation doesn’t.

Johns said the 15 existing riverboat casinos were approved by voters in the parishes where they are located. 

The other change in the bill would set a limit of 2,365 gambling spaces. It would replace the current 30,000-square-foot limitation. He said blackjack tables, for example, count for seven spaces, six players and the dealer.

Johns said gambling machines are larger today and more technologically advanced, and that five, six or seven of them would take the place of 10 of today’s smaller machines. The 30,000-square-foot limitation would allow casinos to cram more smaller machines into the same space, he said.

Any plans to move within the 1,200-foot limit would have to be approved by the state Gaming Control Board, Johns said. The proposals have to represent a major economic development plan like those demonstrated by L’Auberge Casino Resort and the Golden Nugget, both in Lake Charles. The Isle of Capri Casino in Westlake would also be affected it if desired to move from its current waterway location.

The two Lake Charles resorts have entertainment venues, Johns said, along with golf courses and world-class spas and restaurants. He said riverboats wouldn’t be allowed to simply move gambling machines into a warehouse.

The 15 casinos employ 15,000 well-paid employees, Johns said, and the industry gets none of the state economic development incentives offered to encourage other industries to develop in Louisiana.

The riverboats pay 21.5 percent in state taxes, he said, and 4 percent, 5 percent or 6 percent to local governments.

Shreveport riverboat casinos are losing patrons to tribal casinos in Oklahoma, and Dallas residents are going to those casinos as well, Johns said. Those casinos pay no taxes, he said.

Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, spoke against the bill, saying he respects Johns, but disagrees with him about his legislation. He said the bill expands gambling’s footprint by expanding space and letting casinos locate on land rather than on a waterway.

“Any decrease of regulations is deregulation,” he said. Mills talked about the state’s high poverty and low-income rates and said the state is fifth in the country in gambling addiction.

Mills said he favors and wants to protect Louisiana families that are affected by that addiction rate. 

Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany and chairman of the committee, said a number of bills that expand gambling have been introduced and debated during the session. Johns assured him he wouldn’t allow the provisions of any of those bills to be attached to his.

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