Former Gov. Edwin Edwards made an interesting point during the news conference before his lavish birthday party in New Orleans last month.
Edwards — forever branded as a wisecracking, womanizing gambler who toted suitcases of cash to Vegas — said none of the governors who succeeded him made a serious effort to get rid of gambling, despite their public disdain. His remarks coincide with the criticism that Gov. Bobby Jindal is receiving for signing a bill involving the state’s racetracks.
Jindal is firmly on record as opposing the expansion of gambling in Louisiana. So surprise was expressed when Jindal signed House Bill 420 by state Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas. The legislation, which goes into effect Monday, strikes seven words from law. The elimination will allow racetracks across the state, instead of just the one in New Orleans, to engage in what is known as account wagering. The racetracks will be able to accept bets over the phone and the Internet, generating more revenue for the state and for their purses.
“This is good. This is a good thing,” said Charlie Gardiner, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission. Not all legislators agreed. Many — Republicans and Democrats alike — voted against the bill as it moved through the Legislature, even though they are hard-pressed a few months later to explain why.
“It sounds like an expansion, if all the other tracks can start doing something they’re not doing,” said state Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston. Downs said he will not lead any parades to repeal gambling, but also will not support expanding the practice.
State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said he voted against the bill because he gets nervous about legislation that contains the word “gambling.” “There was no reason other than just being cautious,” he said.
State Rep. Noble Ellington, R-Winnsboro, said he also punched “nay” because of the gambling connotation. “I’ve done my best never to vote for gambling,” he said.
Frequent critics of the governor, including blogger C. B. Forgotston, seized upon the governor’s signature of the bill. “If Jindal had not signed this bill, it would have been inconsistent with his history of consistent inconsistencies,” Forgotston wrote.
The governor’s press secretary, Kyle Plotkin, said Jindal signed the bill because it does not expand gambling.
Lobbyist and attorney Kevin Hayes, who worked to push the bill through the Legislature, said the purpose of the bill is to keep money in the state by breaking the monopoly held by the New Orleans racetrack that forced gamblers to place off-site bets at other Louisiana tracks through out-of-state companies.
“If this was an expansion of gaming, my friends at Family Forum would be all over the bill,” Hayes said, referring to the conservative organization that advocates for family values.
Gardiner said the legislation is an equalizer.
He said the Legislature initially allowed the New Orleans track to take bets over the phone and the Internet because of a ban on installing slot machines prompted by the proximity of the land-based Harrah’s Casino. Meanwhile, he said, the state’s other racetracks were free to have slot machines.
After the slot machine ban was lifted, Evangeline Downs complained about the New Orleans racetrack being able to take off-site betting, when that business was going to out-of-state companies at the state’s other tracks, he said.
The bets will be taxed as live wagers, generating more money for the state and the racetracks, Gardiner said. Jindal may not be expanding gambling, but he also is not letting it wither during a weak economy.
Michelle Millhollon covers the Governor’s Office for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.