The Public Policy Committee overhauled a gambling bill in a meeting Wednesday. Natavia Howell of TheStatehouseFile.com reports.
By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – A House committee on Wednesday overhauled a casino industry bill by stripping out provisions that some considered to be expansions of gambling and reinstating funding guarantees for local communities.
Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, said Wednesday he’ll continue to fight for legislation that would let the race track casinos use live dealers at their table games. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
Members of the Public Policy Committee then voted 10-3 to send the bill to the full House for consideration.
“We haven’t seen the last of the bill,” said Public Policy Chairman Bill Davis, R-Portland. “There’s going to be plenty of opportunity” for additional work on it.
Gone from Senate Bill 528 are proposals to let horse track casinos use live dealers for table games and permit riverboat operations to rebuild on land.
The committee also removed language that could have meant some $40 million in lost revenue for the cities, towns and counties in which the casinos are located.
Lawmakers left in place two provisions meant to help the state’s casinos cope with increasing competition from gambling operations in other states. New casinos in Ohio have been draining customers away from Indiana-based operations.
Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, objected on Wednesday as lawmakers stripped a provision from a gambling bill that would have allowed live dealers at horse-track casinos, including one in her district. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
Those provisions would create a $40 million annual tax credit meant to encourage casinos to invest in upgrades or expansions, and give casinos a tax break on marketing coupons they send to potential customers.
The bill’s author, Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, said the opening of a new casino in Cincinnati is projected to cost Indiana locations so much business that the state will lose $60 to $100 million in annual tax revenue.
The casinos “are under attack,” Boots said. “If we walk away and don’t do anything, then the state will lose.”
But Boots opposed amendments meant to eliminate what some said is additional gambling. “We’re not adding games. We’re not adding facilities,” Boots told the committee. “We’re not moving anyone to another location. This bill gives these people some tools to try to compete.”
The question of expansion has become key to the bill’s success. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has expressed some concern about expanded gambling and Gov. Mike Pence has told lawmakers he opposes those provisions of the bill.
Jim Brown, chief operating officer at Centaur, which owns the state’s two horse track casinos, told lawmakers that letting his operations hire live dealers would mean new jobs.
The dealers would replace computers through which gamblers now play poker, roulette and other table games. Currently, state law allows horse track casinos to have only electronic games.
“This solitary quirk in the law today is costing Indiana over 600 full time good paying jobs – jobs that each full time employee working in them will earn an average of over $40,000 a year and qualify for comprehensive healthcare benefits,” Brown said.
Rep. Tim Wesco, a Republican from Osceola and a member of the Public Policy Committee, said that if the table games would create more jobs and more wagering, then that equates to more gambling.
But Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said the Hoosier Lottery – which has a new private company operating the games – has been adding vendors and changing its advertising to lure more Hoosiers to buy tickets. She said that’s a bigger expansion than authorizing table games would create.
Lawmakers were responsive to officials and community leaders from cities, towns and counties where casinos are located. They said their locales can’t afford to lose cash generated by casinos.
Rising Sun Mayor Brandon Roeder told lawmakers that cash from the community’s casino has been used for economic development and projects. “Our city has been a stellar example of how the money has been used,” he said.
As passed by the Senate, the bill would change a 2002 agreement the state made with local governments. At that time, the counties with casinos were collecting more from gambling taxes than expected. Lawmakers voted to cap that revenue and started sending some of that extra cash to non-casino counties.
As part of that law, the General Assembly also guaranteed that the casino counties would never receive less in revenue than they did in 2002. And so in recent years, as casino tax revenues have slowed, the state has been sending part of its tax revenue to those local governments to make up for the guarantee.
The bill approved Senate would end those payments, although it would still allow the casino communities to keep other taxes and payments from the gambling operations.
Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, said that’s not fair. Horseshoe Southern Indiana in Harrison County is part of her district.
“Harrison County would never expect the city of Indianapolis to share revenues that they got from their hotels, restaurants, businesses such as Eli Lilly or the hosting of the Super Bowl,” she said. “The casino is our main source of revenue for economic development in our county.”
The House committee’s version of the bill reinstates those payments.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.