In 1991, the state Legislature ushered in the modern era of gambling in Louisiana by legalizing floating casinos that were meant to evoke romantic images of Mark Twain, with the promised launch of 19th century-style paddle-wheelers that would cruise up and down the Mississippi River.
But the floating casinos soon stopped sailing as they realized leaving the dock caused business to drop. They came up with imaginative excuses for not cruising: One boat, Boomtown, on the Harvey Canal, memorably cited “darkness” at night as a reason for staying docked.
Today, only three of the 15 boats allowed in Louisiana are berthed on the Mississippi, and none of those three are in New Orleans. State legislators ditched the sailing requirement years ago as it became clear boat owners would go to great lengths to get around it.
Now the dockside casino industry is poised to move even further away from the original concept pitched to the public. The floating casinos are seeking approval to move a short distance onto land, during the annual legislative session that begins on Monday.
At the same time, the owners of a boat in Bossier City are asking the Legislature’s permission to move to a rural community just south of Hammond on the Tangipahoa River, a body of water that is only a stone’s throw wide and is almost shallow enough to walk across.
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The two proposals are part of a wave of bills that, taken together, seek the biggest expansion of gambling in Louisiana since the Legislature legalized riverboats and video poker in 1991 and the state’s lone land-based casino in New Orleans in 1992.
Now, the riverboat casinos want more gambling space and the right to move off the water, further blurring the distinction between riverboats and land casinos. The truck stops that operate video poker rooms want fewer restrictions. The Harrah’s casino in New Orleans wants an extension of its monopoly contract, as well as a second hotel and the right to operate a food court area. The four racetracks that have slot machines – known as “racinos” – now want to offer table games, video poker and sports betting. Operators of fantasy sports betting want the right to operate in Louisiana.
“Each form of gaming is coming forward with what they need to bring their laws into common status with other states,” said Randy Haynie, the lead lobbyist for Caesars Entertainment, which operates Harrah’s in New Orleans, a dockside riverboat in Bossier City and the Louisiana Downs racetrack in Bossier City.
Keeping up with other states has been a rallying cry for the gambling industry here since its inception, in a dynamic that’s akin to an arms race.
Back in 1991, the Legislature and then-Gov. Buddy Roemer approved the 15 boats in part because Iowa, Illinois and Mississippi had legalized floating casinos during the previous two years.
“We are the tourist center of the Mississippi Valley, and we should have it,” Roemer said when he signed the measure into law.
The Louisiana Legislature, fresh off a week-long break after the collapse of its recent special session, is heading back to the State Capitol …
Since then, state and local elected officials have become addicted to the tax dollars that gambling generates. In 2017, the state collected a total of $710 million from the Harrah’s casino in New Orleans, from the 15 floating casinos, from video poker and from the racetrack slot machines. Gambling is now the fourth-biggest source of tax revenue for the state, far surpassing the longtime champion, oil and gas.
“People don’t like gaming, but they sure like the revenue that comes from it,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, who is pushing measures this year sought by video poker and riverboat casino interests. “If we were flush with cash and had a $1 billion surplus, we wouldn’t be talking about it.”
The gambling interests want to talk about how their business has stagnated.
The desire to raise more revenue – without raising more taxes – has made elected officials more receptive to the blandishments of gambling lobbyists. Republicans and Democrats alike are pushing for more gambling or looser restrictions.
“We have a budget problem,” said state Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, who is sponsoring gambling expansions sought by the racetracks. “This is a way to pay for education, roads and health care.”
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Gov. John Bel Edwards has indicated he’s more open to pro-gambling measures than was his predecessor, Bobby Jindal.
The modern gambling era in Louisiana has been accompanied by a healthy dose of corruption. Notably, federal prosecutors won the conviction of former Gov. Edwin Edwards for taking payoffs from riverboat casinos, including $400,000 in cash at a restaurant parking lot from a man seeking a riverboat license and more than $1 million from the owner of the Treasure Chest casino in Kenner.
Family members of elected officials have earned big bucks by selling goods to the casinos, including $600,000 by the wife of state Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, in the 1990s.
Gambling’s supporters, of course, focus on the millions in tax receipts that their industry generates. They also tout the jobs: 13,800 at the 15 riverboats, according to the Louisiana Casino Association, its trade group; 10,000 in the video poker industry, according to the Louisiana Video Gaming Association, its trade group; and 2,400 at Harrah’s New Orleans casino, including the restaurants and hotel.
They also note that nine of the state’s 15 floating casinos are located in Lake Charles and Shreveport/Bossier City and thus draw many of their customers from Texas and Arkansas.
Still, the economic benefits are not as rosy as painted by the pro-gambling lobby. The riverboat casinos in Harvey, Kenner, Baton Rouge and Amelia draw heavily from within Louisiana, making it likely that the money that gamblers lost at the casino would have been spent elsewhere in the state.
Video poker in particular brings in almost no one from outside Louisiana to gamble, said Jim Richardson, a longtime economist at LSU.
“Probably almost every penny we get from there is pulling away from other activities,” Richardson said, adding that the money that disappears into video poker machines is money not spent at local restaurants, outside entertainment or family needs.
Also not usually included in the overall economic calculation: The expansion of gambling in Louisiana has created tens of thousands of gambling addicts who in some cases have blown their life’s savings or stolen from employers to feed their betting habits.
“A Louisiana study on problem gambling revealed that as many as 275,000 Louisianans are involved in problem gaming activities,” the Louisiana Department of Health reported last week.
More gambling will undoubtedly create more gambling addicts, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gamblers. He said studies show that as many as 2.9 percent of Louisiana residents can’t control their compulsion to gamble, compared to 2 percent of the national average, costing each problem gambler $1,200 on average per year.
The state provides meager assistance for them, with a single in-patient facility in Shreveport.
The action at the Legislature could begin as soon as Tuesday, when the Judiciary B Committee initiates its work. State Sen. Gary Smith Jr., the committee chairman, said he may begin hearing senators’ gambling bills that day.
On the eve of releasing proposed bills that would bring riverboat casinos on land and expand gambling floor space, members of a task force Tue…
Criminal Justice, the counterpart committee on the House side, will begin hearing gambling legislation the following week.
The two committee chairmen represent a study in contrasts.
Smith, 45, is a Democrat from Norco who entered the Legislature in 1999. He handles his family’s investments in real estate and other areas, he said.
“People ought to be free to choose what they want to do with their money and time, as long as it abides by the law,” Smith said when asked for his views on gambling.
State Rep. Sherman Mack, 45, chairs the Criminal Justice Committee. The head of a five-man law firm, he is a conservative Republican from Albany in Livingston Parish who was first elected to the House in 2011.
“I’m not in favor of the expansion of gambling,” Mack said when asked for his views.
The original pitch for a New Orleans casino in 1992 called for it to be unlike casinos in other states; instead, it would be a stand-alone facility without a hotel or restaurants. This was meant to ensure that gamblers benefited other businesses by spending money outside the casino.
After Harrah’s went bankrupt in 1995, the Legislature permitted the company to add a hotel and restaurants and to reduce its minimum payment to the state from $100 million to $60 million per year.
Now Harrah’s wants permission to build another hotel, on the casino site, and add the food court, as part of what Harrah’s officials say would be a $350 million investment. The Louisiana Restaurant Association does not oppose the proposal.
Harrah’s is also seeking a 36-year extension in its contract to operate the only land-based casino in New Orleans. Company officials are offering several million dollars more per year to the city and the state in return.
Haynie has hired a slew of fellow lobbyists to appeal to the different political factions in the Legislature, but he has already lined up formidable support. Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, is the lead sponsor of the legislation, House Bill 553, and the governor’s office expects to ultimately support the bill, said executive counsel Matthew Block.
The changes for the riverboats come from recommendations offered by a task force co-chaired by Ronnie Jones, chairman of the state board that regulates gambling. Under Senate Bill 316, the floating casinos could move onto land, within 1,200 feet of their designated berth space, and a limit of 2,365 gambling machines would replace the 1991 cap of 30,000 square feet of gambling space.
“It is an honest effort to modernize the industry,” said state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, the bill’s sponsor. “We’re encouraging them to do something of significant economic development – build a property with restaurants and more hotel rooms.”
The Legislature legalized video poker in 1991 under the guise of combatting the proliferation of illegal machines at neighborhood bars. Legalizing video poker at truck stops was an afterthought.
Louisiana now has 205 truck stops with video poker in the 31 parishes that allow them, and 3,600 bars and restaurants have up to three machines apiece, according to Alton Ashy, the industry’s lead lobbyist.
Ashy is pushing to loosen restrictions on the truck stops. Under his proposals, truck stop owners would dictate the hours of their restaurants. They would no longer have to report their fuel sales to State Police or have that agency regulate their parking areas – controls that were instituted in 1991 to prevent fly-by-night operations. Ashy is also pushing to have the Legislature permit video poker operators to offer different types of video poker games and to use multiple electronic decks of cards per play.
“These are people trying to make a living,” Bishop said. “Why are we being so restrictive on these guys?”
Boyd Gaming, which operates a racetrack and slot machine casino near Lake Charles, and another one at Evangeline Downs near Lafayette, wants to have more slot machines. David Strow, a Boyd Gaming official, did not return phone calls.
Rep. Thibaut is sponsoring the measure, House Bill 91.
Thibaut, with House Bill 245, is also seeking to allow the tracks to dramatically expand their offerings with table games, sports betting and video poker.
State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, wants to allow Louisiana residents to bet on fantasy sports games, such as those offered by FanDuel and Draft King.
“Let’s get it regulated so their winnings can be taxed and have it be above aboard,” Talbot said.
Meanwhile, Peninsula Pacific, a Los Angeles-based company, is seeking the Legislature’s approval for the right to move its Bossier City riverboat casino to the Tangipahoa River, in the governor’s home parish.
Robby Miller, the Tangipahoa Parish president, likes the idea because company officials have said they would invest $100 million, create 500 jobs and build a conference center.
“Our council would have a lot of leeway to make sure it’s built a certain way,” Miller said, noting that the Tangipahoa Parish voters also would have to approve it.
In a surprise move, rural Tangipahoa Parish — just west of St. Tammany Parish — is being eyed for a potential riverboat casino.
Judy Bardwell, a church pianist, is one of the nearby residents who would find themselves next to the big casino resort. She noted that the property flooded twice in 2016 and guessed that the 100-acre forested parcel just south of I-12 at Highway 445 would have to be raised.
Bardwell recently walked among the magnolia, oak and maple trees that the casino company would tear down to build the project.
“It makes me feel sad and nostalgic,” she said. “We like birds and squirrels, not 18-wheelers. This would totally disrupt our lives.”