Louisiana lawmakers to consider riverboat casino changes
By MELINDA DESLATTE
Jan. 16, 2018
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers will be asked to significantly rewrite the state's riverboat casino laws for the first time in nearly two decades, to move the casinos to land and redefine the limits on gambling space.
The ideas were recommended Tuesday by a task force created by lawmakers in 2016 to suggest ways to update Louisiana's riverboat gambling regulations, keep the state's casinos competitive and promote the heavily regulated industry as an economic development tool.
Sen. Ronnie Johns, a Republican from Lake Charles, said he'll sponsor the proposals in the legislative session that begins in March. He said the changes might be seen as "baby steps," but he said lawmakers have not had a "meaningful conversation about this industry" in years.
"We've started with something we think is very manageable, something that I think has an excellent opportunity to pass," he said.
Louisiana has 15 riverboat casinos, under a law enacted in 1991. The casinos are in many ways still operating under the regulatory structure of that law. The last major law change was in 2001, when the riverboats were allowed to be permanently docked — doing away with a requirement that they cruise periodically — in exchange for the casinos paying a higher tax rate.
The task force proposals, approved without objection Tuesday, are likely to be contentious as gambling is a sensitive issue in the conservative state. Legislation with the word "gaming" included in it often gets sidelined with little discussion.
Task force members say the changes will address concerns in an important state industry that provides sizable income for the treasury.
"I think we've started a discussion that's been years in the making. We can make some meaningful changes. We can promote a reinvestment in this economy in Louisiana. I think we can create some jobs," said Ronald "Ronnie" Jones, the former state trooper who led the task force and is chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.
Riverboat casinos send more than $400 million annually to state coffers, out of about $900 million collected from gambling, including the lottery, land-based casino in New Orleans, slot machines at racetracks, video poker and the riverboats.
The 15 riverboat casinos employ more than 20,000 people and keep a payroll topping $348 million, according to the legislation creating the task force.
The recommendations involve allowing the casinos to conduct gambling activities within 1,200 feet on land from where the riverboat is berthed and removing the requirement the riverboats have an operable paddlewheel. Jones said Louisiana is one of the last states to require their casinos to remain in the water.
Also suggested is removing a requirement that limits the riverboat casinos to 30,000 square feet of gambling space and replacing it with a cap on gambling positions — essentially the number of seats in front of slot machines and table games — at 2,365. The change is sought by the industry to accommodate larger slot machines with more features.
The task force didn't make a recommendation on sports betting, though the topic was discussed.
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