Riverboat Louis Armstrong

The Riverboat Louis Armstrong, a former casino riverboat, was purchased by Hospitality Enterprises New Orleans, which plans to operate it as a jazz and entertainment vessel. 

Riverboat casino owners will need to shell out for a few extras — a hotel or conference center, say — to get permission from the state Gaming Control Board to move operations onshore.

Board chairman Ronnie Jones this week explained why: “The idea was not just to move the slot machines onto land. This is about building new resorts with new amenities and gambling.” There is a word for this and it is expansion.

That is a word we heard all the time when the bill allowing casinos to terrestrialize was being debated last year. Its proponents, echoing its sponsor state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, took turns flatly denying they were advocating an “expansion of gambling.” We didn't need to be told that was pure flapdoodle, but let us at least thank Jones for not insulting the public intelligence.

The familiar assurances that no expansion of gambling was contemplated were more blatantly untruthful than usual on this occasion, because Johns' bill allowed casinos to pack in more suckers even if they did not move to dry land. Each riverboat used to be allowed a maximum 30,000 square feet of gambling space, but the new legislation scraps that limit and provides for 2,365 to try their luck at cards, roulette, lots or craps at the same time. Accommodating that many gamblers would require somewhere close to 50,000 square feet. Riverboats can add the extra capacity with no requirement to provide more ancillary amenities.

Clearly, it will be easier to bring in the crowds if a casino does take advantage of the opportunity to set up shop on a more accessible spot on dry land up to 1,200 feet from its current berth. Every provision in the bill screams expansion. That makes sense, for an industry must grow if it is to prosper and keep the taxes flowing.

The expansion of gambling is thus a plus for the state if the revenues more than offset the costs associated with the crime and addiction that go with it, but not everyone believes they do. Regardless, since legislators are obviously never going to make gambling illegal again, despite their obligation under the state constitution to do so, we might as well encourage casinos to maximize revenues.

The rationale for legalization in the first place was that gambling would boost the state's economy, so common sense requires that we do not hand a major advantage to our competition. But that is what we did last year when our legislators refused to let Louisiana casinos run sports books. Gamblers can, however, nip across the state line and place their wagers in Mississippi, where casinos were ready to run sports books as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down the federal law that gave Nevada a virtual monopoly.

State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, filed a bill allowing Louisiana casinos to follow suit, but his colleagues refused even to give it a hearing. That was a remarkably dumb move even by Baton Rouge standards, as Martiny suggested on the senate floor when he said it would make Louisiana a “laughing stock.” The most mealy-mouthed legislator could hardly deny that Martiny's bill constituted an expansion of gambling, so a certain amount of courage would have been required to move it along. No chance.

Next year, after Mississippi has had ample time to capitalize on its advantage, the mood in the Louisiana legislature may change. One of these days, no doubt, we'll be able to bet on, say, NFL games without trekking to the Gulf Coast. But by then lots of Louisiana residents will have become loyal customers in, say, Biloxi, and we'll be sorry Mississippi was allowed to steal a march.

Jones says that every Louisiana casino CEO he has spoken to on the subject wants sports betting legalized here, which is not exactly surprising. Meanwhile, three riverboats, including the Belle of Baton Rouge, are up for the move ashore, because that is how you expand gambling.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.