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Baton Rouge’s riverboat casinos had a modest reopening from the coronavirus pandemic in mid May, bringing in 36% of the revenue during the nearly two weeks they were open, compared to what they did for the entire month of May 2019.

Thirty years ago last month, Louisiana entered the modern gambling era when voters approved a lottery as a way to offset the fallout from the Oil Bust that devastated the state’s oil and gas industry and the government’s finances.

Over the next two years, state legislators doubled down like card sharps on a hot streak. They legalized video poker, 15 riverboat casinos and a big “land-based” casino at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans. But the measures typically passed with few if any votes to spare, attesting to the public’s grave concern about gambling’s downside.

In fact, over the next decade, gambling operators and their political benefactors became ensnared in corruption, casinos went bankrupt and many people in the state questioned the promised benefits.

But with the lure of more jobs and tax revenue, gambling continued to spread, and the Nov. 3 election where 55 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes supported sports betting affirmed that state-sponsored games of chance have become as integral to the state’s fabric as alligators, LSU football and Mardi Gras.

The vote came two years after voters approved betting on fantasy sports in 47 parishes.

Neither state Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, sponsor of the sports betting proposition, nor state Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, sponsor of the fantasy sports measure, said he has faced political repercussions for their pro-gambling efforts.

The only parishes that rejected betting on professional and college sports on Nov. 3 were rural parishes, mostly in north Louisiana.

It "would take a crowbar” to get rid of gambling now, said John Alario, a former Democratic House speaker and Republican Senate president from Westwego. “Folks are finding that it’s not as bad a deal as they thought. Overall, I think the public has accepted it.”

Today, 48 states have some form of gambling, with only Hawaii and Utah holding out, reports the American Gaming Association, which also says 50% of Americans hold a favorable view of gaming now, up from 31% in 2009.

Lawmakers across the country have turned to gambling in recent decades as a relatively painless way to raise more tax revenue.

Gambling promoters in Louisiana in the early 1990s said it would solve the state's perennial budget problems. That has not happened.

In 2020 in Louisiana, the various forms of gambling – the riverboats, the Harrah’s casino in New Orleans, video poker and the four slot machine emporiums at racetracks – generated $609 million in state taxes, or about 5% of state general revenue, said Jim Richardson, an LSU economist and budget expert.

The $609 million topped the $550 million generated by taxes on oil and gas production, which was 4.5% of state general revenue.

Sponsors of gambling legislation have created supportive political constituencies by directing a share of the tax revenue to local governments and nonprofit groups.

A portion of the racetrack slot machine revenue, for example, helps pay for boll weevil eradication, a school for the blind and managing New Orleans’ City Park.

The Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots provided $1.6 million in tax revenue to New Orleans in 2019, according to city figures.

The Boomtown Casino in Harvey provided $2.1 million to Jefferson Parish in 2019, while video poker provided another $1.9 million and the parish’s off-track betting parlor chipped in another $450,000, according to Jefferson Parish figures.

Gambling, said Richardson, “is now part of the economic infrastructure.”

The riverboat casinos employed about 13,000 people in 2018, according to the latest annual report from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board. Harrah’s employed 2,400 people at its casino, restaurant and hotel. The report contained no estimate of video poker jobs at the nearly 1,000 bars and lounges with machines, the 500 restaurants and the 200 truck stops.

Louisiana legalized the lottery, the riverboats and video poker in 1990 and 1991 under then-Gov. Buddy Roemer – and the land casino in New Orleans under then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1992 – with the argument that Louisiana had to compete with other states that had recently legalized those forms of gambling. Another selling card: gambling provided lawmakers with a way to collect more money to fund government without having to take unpopular votes to raise taxes.

It began with the lottery in 1990, with the requirement that the money go for K-12 education. The lottery proceeds do fund schools, as lottery officials love to note, but this has not meant a net increase in money for education, because lawmakers took away an equivalent amount they had been providing in state aid.

The 15 riverboats approved in 1991 were supposed to cruise up and down the Mississippi River and attract hordes of free-spending tourists. But the boat operators quickly found any number of excuses not to sail – night was one reason. Only the boats in Lake Charles and Shreveport-Bossier City draw tourists now.

In 2018, with riverboat revenue stagnating, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing the boats to creep onto land – they were no longer required to sail anyhow – and to have more gambling machines.

Riverboats provide about half the gambling revenue paid to the state.

Local public entities also share a portion of the money. In Calcasieu Parish, for example, the state’s biggest market because of its proximity to Texas, money from the boats also flows to the city of Lake Charles, to McNeese State University and to Sowela Technical Community College.

“Gaming has been very good to our community,” said George Swift, president and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance in Lake Charles. “It’s been good for employment. It’s brought entertainment to the area.”

Swift lamented that damage from Hurricane Laura shut down the Isle of Capri, and coronavirus restrictions imposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards have limited the number of people who can gamble on the Golden Nugget and L’Auberge.

“We’re hoping the casinos get back to full capacity,” he said.

The boats on the Red River in Shreveport-Bossier City draw visitors from the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, about two hours away.

“The riverboats have become a huge part of the economy. They hire a lot of people,” said Robert Adley, a former Republican state senator from Bossier Parish.

Texas has resisted efforts to legalize casinos. But the six boats in the two parishes lost gamblers after Indian casinos opened in Oklahoma several years ago. Owners of the DiamondJacks casino in Bossier City, the worst-performing casino in that bi-parish market, have not reopened after Edwards lifted some of the coronavirus restrictions.

Like the other forms of gambling, video poker struggled to win public approval in its early years. In 1996, then-Gov. Mike Foster and state legislators gave each parish the right to decide whether to keep video poker. Only 33 of the 64 parishes legalized it.

But video poker has become so accepted now that Alton Ashy, the industry’s lead lobbyist in Baton Rouge, marveled that the Legislature unanimously passed a bill during the recently completed special session that would allow a truck stop casino to continue operating while it shut down its restaurant for renovations.

“Even five years ago, some legislators would have voted no against it,” Ashy said, adding that he can’t recall a single candidate returning a campaign contribution from one of his video poker clients in recent years. “From a political standpoint, gaming is just not a big deal anymore.”

To be sure, a few lawmakers remain holdouts, pointing to the social and economic costs from people who become problem gamblers, including embezzlement, broken marriages and suicides. One of them is state Rep. Francis Thompson, a Democrat from Delhi who has been in the Legislature since 1974.

“We get a lot of revenue from gambling, but it has a lot of negatives,” Thompson said. “They don’t have all those lights in casinos because they’re losing money. People lose money that they need to run their household.”

Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative, faith-based group that opposes gambling, noted that while a majority of voters in Louisiana’s parishes have approved betting on fantasy sports and sporting events, the Legislature still must agree to the rules and the tax rates next year.

“Louisiana Family Forum will be working to ensure that there is a mechanism to effectively prevent illegal, underage online gambling, including a reliable hacker-proof age verification system,” Mills said. “We will advocate for sufficient measures to prevent and treat subsequent gambling addictions brought by this new venue. It is also essential that Louisiana give guarantees that those who seek to conduct online gaming efforts are required to maintain the highest ethical business practices.”

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.