The state Senate on Tuesday approved a bill pushed by Louisiana’s riverboat casino industry to allow its 15 floating casinos to operate land side and have more slot machines.
But minutes later, the Senate rejected a bid by the owner of the DiamondJacks casino in Bossier Parish to move his boat to Tangipahoa Parish. The vote was 18-15 on Senate Bill 417 by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.
The Senate took up both bills after several weeks of delay as supporters of both measures sought to line up their votes.
State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, succeeded in winning passage of Senate Bill 316. The vote was 22-14, two more than were needed.
SB316 now goes to a House committee for a hearing. The legislation would permit the boats to operate within 1,200 feet of their designated berth site and would replace the longtime cap of 30,000 square feet of gambling space with a limit of 2,365 gambling positions.
Johns told senators that the measure would encourage owners of the boats to invest money in hotels and other upgrades on land.
He said it would not amount to an expansion of gambling, a key litmus test for many senators.
“They could not move any further than 1,200 feet of where they are,” Johns said. “They can’t move to Jefferson Highway (in East Baton Rouge Parish). They can’t move to Millerville Road.”
Several senators said they opposed the measure because the new limit would allow the boats to expand the physical space of their gambling floor with more slot machines.
State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, citing State Police figures, said the 15 floating casinos have 21,223 gambling positions today and would be allowed to have up to 35,400 under the new cap.
"In my book, that’s an expansion of gambling," Allain said.
But state Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, said the measure would create jobs and increase tax revenue. All six boats in Shreveport/Bossier City are in his district.
“We need this,” Peacock said. “Shreveport/Bossier wouldn’t be the same today if it didn’t have its riverboats.”
State Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, said passage of the bill would lead to more gambling addicts in Louisiana. “The families that are affected by this are real Louisianians,” Long said.
State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, said the measure was needed because of the state's budget problems. "We have an industry providing us with income," Martiny said.
But state Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, said the measure would drain the economy by creating more gambling addicts.
"It’s funneling money from the middle class to financial syndicates," Milkovich said.
No one knows how many of the 15 boats might be moved ashore. Johns acknowledged that the legislation might lead some boats to move to new locations.
Black senators had delayed consideration of the bill, for two reasons. First, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, expressed anger upon learning that three riverboat casinos — Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino in Shreveport, the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City and the Eldorado Resort in Shreveport — have fallen short of meeting goals for contracting with minority-owned businesses.
Johns said Tuesday that he met with the concerned senators, and he offered an amendment that the Senate approved to have the floating casinos report their contracting figures to legislative committees to provide better oversight. Currently, they report the figures only to the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.
Several black senators, led by state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, also had withheld their support for Johns’ bill to signal their unhappiness with Johns' no vote last month when the Senate rejected legislation that would increase Louisiana’s minimum wage rate from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour over two years. Senate Bill 162 fell three votes short of passage 21-17 on March 27. Carter chose to not have his bill heard on Tuesday.
In the end, Carter voted for Johns’ bill. Peterson was absent.
Ironically, immediately after passing SB316, the Senate rejected Senate Bill 318, which would allow the boats to convert the limit on gambling space from 30,000 square feet to 2,365 positions, as in Johns' bill. The vote was 19-16.
The Senate then rejected Senate Bill 321, which would allow the boats to move land side, as in Johns' bill. That vote was 21-13.
In other words, SB318 and SB321 together would make the same changes as SB316.
Three senators voted for Johns' SB316 but against both SB318 and SB321. Those senators were White, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and state Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette.
Fourteen senators voted against all three measures, including Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, who has been saying for weeks that the Legislature is putting too much focus on gambling.
Going into Tuesday’s vote, State Capitol insiders thought Johns’ bill would pass but that White’s bill to move the DiamondJacks faced a bigger hurdle. They were right. Senators rejected SB417 after White spoke only for several minutes in favor of the measure, and no one questioned it. Afterward, White made a parliamentary move that will allow him to try to pass the bill sometime before the legislative session ends.
SB417 would designate the Tangipahoa River as an authorized waterway for casino gambling and would allow the parish to vote in November. The Parish Council and Parish President Robby Miller have embraced the move. The boat would be located at Interstate-12 and Louisiana Highway 445. Trees cover most of the site today.
Supporters said the owners, Los Angeles-based Peninsula Pacific, would build a $100 million casino that would create 500 jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for the parish. (A $100 million casino would make it would one of the smaller casinos in Louisiana.)
SB417 has faced opposition from lobbyists for video poker truck stops and lobbyists for Boyd Gaming, which owns the Treasure Chest casino in Kenner.
DiamondJacks is the lowest performing casino in Louisiana, and representatives of Peninsula Pacific have been telling senators that the boat is losing money. Peninsula Pacific initially sought two years ago to move to a site in Slidell at Lake Pontchartrain and Interstate 10, but the landowner wouldn’t sell the property, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said in an interview.
The site they chose in Tangipahoa Parish is only several miles west of the St. Tammany Parish border.
Peninsula Pacific has hired at least 18 lobbyists for the measure, meaning that it had three more lobbyists than votes.
The company’s main partner, Brent Stevens, was in the Senate chamber for the vote and rushed from his seat to the brass rail to see the board light up with votes. He turned away and quickly left after the bill fell five votes short of passage.
The House Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday will consider a similar measure, House Bill 438. Supporters filed two bills to have one as a back-up option. Committee Chairman Sherman Mack, R-Albany, is opposing it, which will make it more difficult to pass.
Passage of Johns' bill served as something of a test vote for representatives of the Harrah's New Orleans casino, who also watched the vote from the Senate chamber. The Harrah's measure, House Bill 553, is likely to get its next hearing before the Senate Judiciary B Committee on Tuesday. HB553 has already passed the House overwhelmingly.
Voting to bring riverboat casinos onshore (22): Sens Conrad Appel, R-Metairie; Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge; Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette; Troy Carter, D-New Orleans; Norby Chabert, R-Houma; Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell; Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles; Eric LaFleur. D-Ville Platte; Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria; Danny Martiny, R-Metairie; Fred Mills, R-Parks; J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans; Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City; Ed Price, D-Gonzales; Gary Smith, D-Norco; John Smith, R-Leesville; Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport; and Bodi White, R-Central.
Voting against SB316 (14): President John Alario, R-Westwego; Sens. Bret Allain, R-Franklin; Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; Dale Erdey, R-Livingston; Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro; Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City; Eddie Lambertm R-Gonzales; Gerald Long, D-Winnfield; John Milkovich, D-Shreveport; Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton; Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan; Neil Riser, R-Columbia; Francis Thompson, D-Delhi; and Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.
Not Voting (3): Sens Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge; Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans; and Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen.