The state’s floating casinos could move onto land and have thousands of new slot machines and table games under legislation passed by a House committee Wednesday.
Senate Bill 316 would allow the boats to move 1,200 feet ashore from their current location on water and replace the current cap of 30,000 square feet of gambling space with a cap instead of 2,365 gaming positions. A gaming position is essentially a seat at a slot machine or table game.
State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, told members of the House Criminal Justice committee that his Senate Bill 316 does not represent an expansion in gambling – a key litmus test for lawmakers – even though State Police figures not presented to the committee show that SB316 would allow the state’s 15 boats to have up to 67 percent more seats for slots and table games under the new cap.
The boats had a total of 21,223 positions, according to the most recent figures from State Police, in December. Under the new cap of 2,365 positions per boat in SB316, the 15 boats could have up to 35,475 positions, a 67 percent increase.
Johns said SB316 did not expand gambling because it would not increase the number of boats (limited to 15) nor their gambling space.
SB316 moves to the House floor for consideration. If it passes intact, it would become law. Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he supports the legislation.
John pitched his bill as a way to promote economic development in Louisiana by encouraging the boats to build full-scale resorts on land, as the Golden Nugget and L’Auberge have done already in Lake Charles through an artful reading of the current law that allowed them to build casinos on floating barges next to waterways.
Allowing the boats to operate on land and have a cap on their gaming positions, not their square feet, were recommendations of a task force chaired by Johns and Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.
Johns noted that owners of the casino boats wanted an even higher cap on gaming positions and the right to offer other forms of gambling.
Johns said SB316 contains the cap of 2,365 gaming positions because that is 10 percent higher than the biggest number of gaming positions at any boat, the Golden Nugget, which has 2,152 positions. Johns told the committee members that he didn’t consider the 10 percent increase to be an expansion because different casinos count positions differently.
Johns also noted that the boats operate under no cap on gaming positions today (because of the 30,000 square foot limit) and could add positions today by replacing their current machines with smaller ones.
But he also told the committee members several times that the boat owners want to switch to a cap on gaming positions because they have been offering their customers bigger and bigger machines that take up more space.
Johns’ logic won the vote of state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, who noted that the legislation would eliminate the need for the 15 floating casinos to have paddlewheels – a leftover from the original 1991 law that called for the boats to cruise on lakes and rivers.
“I don’t see this as an expansion of gaming,” Dwight said. “I see this as a modernization.”
State Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, also said she didn’t see SB316 as expanding gambling.
Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, did not share that view. He told the committee members that the new cap will inevitably lead to more gambling, which he said by definition is an expansion. He also said the move to land would serve to deregulate the industry, which Mills also counts as an expansion.
“Expansion is defined by more than just the number of licenses or boats,” Mills said.
State Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, expressed concern that allowing the boats to move 1,200 feet from their berth site – equivalent to four football fields – was too much. He voted against the bill.
State Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, who chairs the committee, won Johns’ promise that he would not agree to amend a controversial measure onto his bill on the House floor. Senate Bill 417 would allow a riverboat casino in Bossier Parish to move to Tangipahoa Parish. SB417 failed to pass the Senate. An identical measure, House Bill 438, did not win approval before the Criminal Justice Committee, in part because Mack opposed it.
The committee approved Johns' bill on a 10-4 vote.