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Hollywood Casino Baton Rouge - File photo

The Belle of Baton Rouge is among three riverboat casinos wanting to move operations onshore and casino operators in the state are concerned about sports betting that has debuted in Mississippi casinos, the head of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board said Monday.

Ronnie Jones told the Press Club of Baton Rouge every casino chief executive officer who spoke to a task force had urged the state to adopt a sports book bill that failed this year to make it through the Legislature. Four Mississippi casinos, including Beau Rivage and IP Casino Resort, both in Biloxi, started accepting wagers on events last week, coming off a Supreme Court ruling in May that opened the way for sports betting to expand.

It’s too early to say how much of an impact Mississippi sports book will have on Louisiana casinos. But Jones said he’s heard anecdotes about regulars telling casino officials they plan on visiting Mississippi over the holidays instead of staying in a local property.

“We already lose a lot of business to Mississippi,” he said. Mississippi casinos already have several advantages over Louisiana properties, such as the fact the gambling halls there don’t have to pay taxes on comped meals and hotel rooms. “We’re competitively disadvantaged and this sports book is just a pile on.”

Jones said he expects the Legislature will once again take up the issue of sports betting in 2019.

He said potential clues to how the Legislature might vote next year may be found in November, when voters in every parish go to the polls for local referendums on fantasy sports wagering.

“It will be interesting to see the vote on fantasy football,” he said. The state plans to set up “geofencing” to prevent people from wagering on fantasy sports sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel if the issue is turned down in their parish. For example, if voters in East Baton Rouge turn down the fantasy sports measure but it passes in West Baton Rouge, people will have to cross the Mississippi River to participate in those games.

Jones said it isn’t known yet how much it will cost to set up the geofencing.

Jones said that rules allowing riverboat casinos to move onto land will be in place by the end of the year, with regulators insisting that new capital investments accompany any relocations.

The Belle, Treasure Chest in Kenner and one unnamed operator are among the first of the state's 15 riverboats expressing an interest in moving onshore, he said.

Jones said one unnamed casino operator asked about moving its gambling operations onto land without adding hotel rooms or conference space, and he told them that probably wouldn't pass the gaming control board.

"What the task force intended to do was not just move the slot machines onto land," he said. "This is about building new resorts with new amenities and gambling."

Jones said the state won't set any threshold for how much improvement needs to be done to allow a property to move onto land. "We're going to look at each property separately, based on where it is located," he said. "There are big differences between the Lake Charles market and Amelia."

The Legislature approved a measure earlier this year to allow riverboat casinos to move 1,200 feet onto land from their designated berth space. When the state passed a law in 1991 allowing for 15 riverboat casinos to set up operations, the boats had to sail while gambling took place. In 2001, the law was changed to allow the boats to remain dockside, but the gaming floor had to be over water.

"There are a lot of properties looking at the economics of moving onto land," Jones said. 

Tropicana Entertainment, which owns the Belle, is in the process of being acquired by Eldorado Resorts Inc. of Nevada. If the deal goes through, Tropicana's real estate assets will be sold to Gaming and Leisure Properties. GLP already owns and operates Hollywood Casino in Baton Rouge and it owns L'Auberge Baton Rouge.

Jones said he's optimistic about the state of the Louisiana casino industry, despite potential competition coming in from other markets. Arkansas is working on passing a measure in November to allow three casinos to be built in the state and a tribal casino in Livingston, Texas, northeast of Houston, is trying to get permission from Congress to continue operations

"We're gambling fools in Louisiana, we've always gambled even when it wasn't legal," he said. "As long as there is a business opportunity, casinos will be here."

Editor's note: This story was changed from its original publication to reflect that gamblers in Louisiana casinos don't pay sales taxes on comp meals and hotel rooms, but the casinos do.  


Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.