State Capitol Baton Rouge politics

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana State Capitol.

A push to move a Bossier City riverboat casino to rural Tangipahoa Parish remained barely alive after a Louisiana House committee Wednesday took no action on the measure in the face of strong opposition.

State Rep. Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula, asked the House Criminal Justice Committee to not take a vote rather than have the committee kill the measure, House Bill 438.

Pugh’s request was the best available tactical move after state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, moved to kill HB438. Mack deferred to Pugh’s request, which the committee approved. Even then, Mack warned Pugh that he did not plan to reschedule the bill anytime during the final weeks of the legislative session.

Despite tall odds, Pugh is not giving up.

“It’s not dead yet,” he said afterward.

The lawmaker can ask the House to direct the committee to advance the bill to the full chamber, but that’s a parliamentary move that rarely occurs.

The House committee’s action came a day after the state Senate rejected an identical measure, Senate Bill 417, on a 15-18 vote. It needed 20 votes to pass.

The sponsor of SB417, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, made a parliamentary move immediately afterward that would allow him to try again to pass the measure. So it remains barely alive in the Senate as well.

Louisiana Senate approves bill to allow floating casinos to operate ashore; bill to move boat to Tangipahoa fails

“I’m not relaxing,” Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, said afterward, but added, “Sherman Mack’s committee sent a pretty strong message to the Senate regarding the Tangipahoa move.”

Mills, whose group has rallied conservative faith-based opponents to both bills, believes the measure represents an expansion of gambling into Tangipahoa Parish and would harm families there.

Los Angeles-based Peninsula Pacific has been pushing both measures to win legislative authorization to move its Bossier City boat, DiamondJacks, to a site located at Interstate-12 and Louisiana Highway 445, just east of Hammond and just west of the St. Tammany Parish border

Peninsula Pacific’s lobbyists induced lawmakers to introduce bills in both the House and the Senate to create a back-up option in case the measure stalled in one chamber or the other. Their problem now is that lawmakers in both chambers have shown no appetite for the move.

HB438 and SB417 would designate the Tangipahoa River as one of the waterways where floating casinos can be berthed – state law prohibits locating a boat there today – and authorize the parish council to call a referendum on whether to permit the move.

On a 6-3 vote, the parish council approved a November election, but that election would occur only if the Legislature approves either HB438 or SB417.

“This is one of the cases where Baton Rouge is telling the people of Tangipahoa Parish what’s best for them,” Pugh said afterward. “I’m disappointed that the people of Tangipahoa Parish won’t be heard.

Earlier, Parish President Robby Miller told committee members what he’s been saying for weeks: Give us the chance to vote.

Brent Stevens, Peninsula Pacific’s managing partner, attempted to entice lawmakers with the promise that his company would spend $100 million to create a casino complex with 500 jobs.

DiamondJacks is the worst performing casino in Louisiana, two years after Peninsula Pacific bought it following a bankruptcy under the previous owner. Peninsula Pacific initially sought to move the boat to Slidell but couldn’t find a willing seller of land at its preferred site.

At least 18 lobbyists are working to win legislative authorization for the move, although only 11 of them are registered with the state ethics board. The others confirmed to The Advocate that they are lobbying for the move.

Committee chairmen typically try not to show their hand on measures before their panel, but Mack sought to derail HB438.

Four Baptist ministers in Tangipahoa Parish warned that the bill would create more gambling addicts in their communities.

“There will be families that will not be able to put food on the table,” said Jeff Robinson, the pastor at First Baptist Church of Hammond.

Gov. John Bel Edwards supports the measure.

In a text afterward, Miller said he didn’t understand why this bill faces such strong opposition while other gambling measures have advanced.

On Tuesday, minutes before rejecting White’s SB417, the Senate approved a measure allowing the state’s floating casinos to operate on land and to have more slot machines than allowed today. Senate Bill 316 is now awaiting a vote before Mack’s committee.

Meanwhile, the House has passed a bill sought by Harrah’s that would give a no-bid, 30-year extension to the company’s state license to operate the only land-based casino in New Orleans, in exchange for the company’s pledge to invest $350 million to build a new hotel and add a food court and night club. House Bill 553 is likely to be heard on Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary B Committee, which has favored most gambling bills before it this year.

Harrah's promises 500 new jobs from planned expansion, but key lawmaker has doubts

One difference between the different pro-gambling bills is that lobbyists for video poker truck stop owners have been opposing DiamondJacks’ move to Tangipahoa Parish because of the competition it would mean for truck stops in St. Helena and St. John parishes. Boyd Gaming, which owns the Treasure Chest in Kenner, the nearest casino, has also been opposing the measure.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.