After more than 25 years of legal gaming in Louisiana, the casino industry is well-established, and there is a reasonable case to be made for updating the laws that govern the mostly permanently docked "riverboat" gambling facilities.
The Legislature established a task force to study the industry, appropriate since the last major change in law was 2001, when the riverboats were no longer required to sail.
A lot has changed since then, and there are a lot of changes that could help casinos.
To begin with, we wonder whether it is still realistic to keep up the fiction that these are anything other than land-based casinos. Expanding physical restrictions on gambling space might well be considered in the 2018 session of the Legislature.
Further, if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down restrictions on sports betting, it is just not realistic to forbid Louisiana casinos from doing something that their competitors in other states and on tribal lands are very likely to do.
Those are big concessions, especially given the fact that gambling is abused. We've lost count of the number of solid citizens and public officials who have become embroiled in bankruptcy or embezzlement because of gambling addiction. The ads funded by the casinos urging people to get help for gambling problems are still needed, after all.
The budgetary reality is that the state is dependent on the casinos and their jobs, many of them good-paying positions that the workers are glad to have. The Treasury is also glad to get the checks: In 2016, revenues from riverboat casinos, and the state’s sole land-based gambling house in New Orleans, as well as the lottery, slot and video poker machines brought in $906 million.
By comparison, mineral-related severance taxes and royalties kicked in $581 million.
Another reality is that the internet does pose a challenge to businesses of all sorts, and there are limits to how much legislative restrictions will be able to alter that trajectory of disruption. If the constitutional definition of gaming is to include effective regulation by the state, an awareness of the economic realities of the business must guide lawmakers' deliberations.
“Our laws are antiquated. They need to be updated if we want to keep up,” said Republican state Sen. Ronnie Johns, whose Lake Charles-area district has three of the state’s 15 riverboat casinos.
Caution is in order: Many people have moral qualms about this industry. We recognize its costs. We also recognize that corporate interests like those of the big casino companies have disproportionate influence with legislators.
A narrowly focused and market-sensitive revision of casino laws could be good for the existing facilities' business model, help retain good-paying jobs, and maintain the healthy tax take for government.