Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force

The Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force recommended on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018 that state laws be change to allow riverboats to move their casinos on land. Task force members, left to right, are state Sens. Gary Smith, D-Norco, and Ronnie Johns, R-Lakes Charles, along with Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the task force.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

In their early form, they roamed the deep but then spent more or more time on the shoreline adapting to terra firma before eventually upping sticks to settle deeper inland.

Lest the Louisiana Family Forum should cry heresy, let us be clear we are not espousing the theories of Charles Darwin. The evolution here is not of people, but of another Family Forum bete noire, gambling.

Riverboat casinos, conceived to evoke the small-scale glamour of antebellum Mississippi paddlewheelers, may look like suburban big boxes.

A Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Taskforce will sponsor legislation in the upcoming session that will let the riverboat casinos move onshore, albeit only within 1200 feet of their current berths. Still, this has been an incremental process since Louisiana embraced gambling a quarter of a century ago. By the time we are done, riverboat casinos will all have moved operations to terrestrial locations a long trek from the nearest stretch of water.

That might seem a bold prediction, given that state law bans casinos on land, save for Harrah's in New Orleans. But Caesars Palace, which owns Harrah's, has promised it won't file suit to protect its monopoly, taskforce chairman Ronnie Jones says.

Legislation proposed to help Louisiana casino industry

No, this is not because Caesars just wants to be a good sport. Caesars also owns the Horseshoe riverboat in Bossier City, which is bound to attract more business in a handier location. The Harrah's casino has been relieving its customers of much less money since the City Council banned smoking, moreover, and Caesars will probably be seeking concessions from the legislature just as the riverboat bills are introduced in hopes of tackling the state's financial crisis. This is no time for Caesars to be obstructive.

The gambling scene of today certainly bears scant resemblance to the original concept when the public was persuaded a quarter of a century ago to approve gambling on the dubious pretext that it represents “economic development.” It certainly developed the government's ability to dig deeper into the taxpayer's pocket. In 2016, state revenues from casinos, video poker and the lottery came to $906 million. That is roughly a quarter of the amount lost by gamblers, so behind these numbers there must be plenty of distress and privation.

That makes a mockery of the original notion that gambling would be a benign and romantic experience, and would be conducted aboard the 15 riverboat casinos, that would have to ply the waters.

This was something of a myth from day one, for the law allowed so many exemptions that dockside action was seldom hard to find. This suited the owners fine since business is always brisker when the suckers can come and go as they please.

Thus, riverboats around Shreveport were sitting pretty, because they could never sail, being on non-navigable sections of the Red River. Boats elsewhere did not have to sail if their captains deemed the weather too hazardous. If they knew what was good for them, they would err on the side of caution, but the Louisiana weather often did provide a legitimate excuse, especially when riverboat casinos were licensed in such congested waterways as the Harvey Canal.

Although the charade of a sailing requirement was ditched years ago, boats must still maintain a working paddlewheel and employ a captain and crew. This rare opportunity for would-be deckhands prone to seasickness is about to disappear, however, under the legislation sponsored by the taskforce, which also wants to authorize more room for gambling when the casinos move onshore.

Task force: Louisiana gambling laws haven't budged in decades, despite evolving industry

Given that the state's operating budget is $28 billion, and the looming “fiscal cliff” is at $1 billion, the effect of any additional gambling revenues may be less than dramatic. On the other hand, every dime lost on a bet helps relieve the state's financial woes, which will always command more media coverage than the bankruptcies, broken homes, addiction and crime that followed the wholesale legalization of gambling.

The task force, however, chose not to recommend legislation that would authorize sports betting in Louisiana should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold a constitutional challenge to the law that has given Nevada a virtual monopoly. The task force will thus have pleased the Family Forum's Gene Mills, for whom gambling evidently poses as great a threat as the theory of evolution.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.