Legislation proposed to help Louisiana casino industry | Legislature | theadvocate.com

A legislative task force Tuesday recommended turning Louisiana’s 15 licensed riverboats casinos into land-based gambling houses.

The Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force also wants to change state laws to reconfigure the size of the “gaming floors,” where gambling takes place.

Republican state Sen. Ronnie Johns, of Lake Charles, said he would have Senate lawyers draft bills based on the recommendations. He will sponsor the measures in the regular legislative session that begins March 12.

“There will be some opposition but the Legislature as a whole realizes the impact this industry has on our state’s budget,” Johns said.

Johns points out that in 2016, the state received $906 million from riverboat casinos, and the state’s sole land-based gambling house in New Orleans, as well as the lottery, slot and video poker machines. Mineral-related severance taxes and royalties accounted for $581 million in state revenues.

Johns said a lot has changed in the industry over the past 27 years. Louisiana’s law needs updating.

The riverboats of the 1991 law were aimed at evoking 19th-Century style paddle wheelers, romantically sailing up and down the river. About the only time the law has been touched since was to take away the requirement that the riverboats actually have to sail. The only casino on land now is Harrah’s on Poydras Street in New Orleans. Many of the other 15 Louisiana casinos may appear to be on land, but actually have riverboat skeletons that sit over water surrounded by massive areas for restaurants, shopping, meeting rooms, hotels, theaters and other amenities. As boats, the casinos are required to have an operating paddle wheel and a maritime crew though the riverboats don’t actually sail.

Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force, without opposition, recommended legislation that would allow riverboat casinos to operate on land within 1,200 feet of their berth over water. At a little less than a quarter of mile, the distance is enough to get past levees but close enough to keep the casinos from moving deeper into the cities in which they operate.

The proposed legislation would lift the requirement that the paddle wheels operate and that the boats be manned with a captain and other marine crew.

Casinos wanting to move on land would have to lay out for regulators a plan of investment in the property, said Ronnie Jones, a former state trooper who chairs the task force and the regulatory Louisiana Gaming Control Board.

The task force then proposed to the Legislature that gaming floors, where the actual gambling takes place, be reconfigured to accommodate for the larger slot machines now being used and to make space for other amenities, like bars or buffets.

Under current law, gaming floors are limited to 30,000 square foot. That cap would change to “gaming positions,” which is the seat in front of a slot machine or at craps table or for other games. The proposal would allow for 2,365 authorized gaming positions.

The task force decided not to recommend legislation that would have prepared for sports betting should the U.S. Supreme Court allows,

Sports betting can take place in many different venues. The task force wanted to limit itself to economic development involving the riverboat casinos.

Reducing the taxes on “promotional play” was high on the casino operators’ list. But task force had no recommendations on that issue either.

“Promotional plays” are vouchers that allow the holder to gamble a certain amount, say $20, without putting up any money. The idea is that the freebie will attract more customers to visit the casino and once there they will gamble, take in a show, and have dinner.

But the state taxes “promotional plays” as if it were real money – about $5 on $20.

Johns said he’s working with casino operators to see if they can come up with some way to lower the tax without costing the state the $18 million collected from “promotional plays.” The state needs the money and any bill that strips away any dollars won’t get out of committee, Johns predicted.

Besides getting gambling bills through the Legislature this spring is going to be a heavy lift, Johns said.

Ever since the 1980s, the debate over state-approved gambling has been intense.

Then in 1991, Gov. Buddy Roemer pushed gambling as an economic development tool that would create jobs. Laws that allowed riverboat casinos narrowly passed followed by a law that allowed the building a single land-based casino in New Orleans and then another expanding video poker at truck stops.

Casino opponents were dismissed as “do-gooders” by a governor and a New Orleans City Councilman called one of the bills “a rape” of the city.

When he ran for reelection, Roemer was called “the godfather of gambling in Louisiana” and didn’t make the runoff.

That the task force didn’t choose to make recommendations on all the issues that it could underscores the point that its goal was to update the laws to become competitive with other states, rather than a new effort to expand gambling, said state Sen. Danny Martiny, a Metairie Republican and member of the task force.

“It won’t be like 1991,” Martiny said. “I don’t think it has turned as bad as people thought it was going to be.”