N.O. gambling revenues continue to fall _lowres

Advocate staff photo 

It was in the name of economic development that Louisiana embraced gambling a quarter of a century ago, and it seems that we may soon be getting even more of it on the same dubious pretext.

Sure, moolah has been cascading into the state coffers since what was always officially classified as a vice turned into a legitimate industry, but enriching the government is not the same as stimulating the economy.

Still, revenues from casinos, the lottery, video poker and slots nowadays exceed the government's take from oil and gas — the numbers last year were $905 million and $581 million — and politicians are addicted. With the Legislature otherwise clueless as to how to address our chronic budget shortfalls, plans are naturally afoot to increase the take from what has proven a painless way to soak the masses.

Two ways of doing so have been mooted. One is to bring the state's 15 riverboat casinos on shore and allow them more than the 30,000 square feet of gambling space which is the current limit under state law. The other, which depends on a favorable decision in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, is to legalize sports betting in Louisiana.

Riverboat casinos are an anachronism, testimony to the ambivalence with which gambling was greeted in Louisiana, where the state constitution requires the Legislature to “define” and “suppress” it. Although this was not regarded as sufficient to outlaw any form of gambling, legislators did not want to alarm the populace by opening casinos in town centers, except for New Orleans, which was already regarded as steeped in vice, and where Harrah's was awarded the monopoly on land.

Otherwise, in an obvious, albeit spurious, attempt to invoke the romantic spirit of the paddle wheel era, gambling would be allowed only on riverboats plying the waters. They were allowed to operate dockside in bad weather, however, and it soon turned out that sailing in Louisiana, even on canals, was a highly risky adventure. Conditions were too dangerous more often than anyone had suspected, the boats routinely remained tied up, gamblers came and went as they pleased, and profits went through the roof.

The pretense was eventually dropped, and the sailing requirement was removed altogether, but you still must board a boat, save in New Orleans, if you wish, say, to play blackjack or shoot craps. Now, state Sen. Ronnie Johns of Lake Charles, home to three of the state's riverboats, fears that gamblers will desert our casinos when they discover that losing money is more convenient in Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The answer is casinos in plain view on shore, precisely what an earlier generation of legislators was eager to avoid. But one thing hasn't changed. Once the gambling era had dawned, it became de rigueur for politicians to deny any plans for further “expansion.” Johns makes the same claim now, pointing out that the number of casinos, and casino licenses, will remain unchanged. But the plan is evidently to scrap the 30,000-square-foot limit, and surely enlarged casinos are the very definition of expanded gambling.

Beaching the casinos may well be a logical move. But there is no denying that, if it produces more tax revenue, it is because we have more gambling. There's no other way.

But beefing up casinos would be a minor move in comparison with legalizing sports books. State Attorney General Jeff Landry has filed an amicus brief in support of New Jersey, which voted to do so but has been blocked by the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide next year whether PASPA, by giving Nevada the exclusive rights to take bets on games, in an unconstitutional intrusion on the rights of the disfavored states.

If New Jersey should prevail, several other states will be ready with legislation, because there is a lot of money out there waiting to be taxed. Americans place illegal sports bets to the tune of some $3 billion a year, and Louisiana might well be tempted to claim a slice.

Politicians could then claim that, since sports betting is already so rife, making it legal would not constitute an expansion of gambling.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.