Louisiana could have up to 15 more land casinos filled with thousands of new slot machines and table games under a bill given final legislative approval Tuesday by the House that will allow the state’s riverboat casino industry to move ashore.
The vote was 53-42, the minimum number required for passage.
Supporters overcame criticism that Senate Bill 316 represented an expansion in gambling, a key litmus test for many lawmakers.
Because the Senate already had approved SB316, it now goes to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature. He has expressed support for it.
Two of the state’s 15 floating casinos that are likely to move soonest onto land are the Belle of Baton Rouge in downtown Baton Rouge and the Treasure Chest on Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner. SB316 allows them to move 1,200 feet — equivalent to four football fields — onto land from their “designated berth space.”
State Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, pushed the bill for the Senate sponsor, Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, promoting the measure as a way to generate more investment in the riverboat casino industry, with those that move onto land likely to build hotels and restaurants.
“They can’t just come into a warehouse,” Dwight said, saying the Louisiana Gaming Control Board will not approve the move unless it leads to “significant economic development.”
Dwight noted that a task force recommended the move onto land and the other major change in the legislation: replacing the current cap of 30,000 square feet of gambling space per boat with a cap instead of 2,365 gaming positions. A gaming position is essentially a seat at a slot machine or table game.
Dwight said the boats want to switch the cap because they are putting bigger and bigger machines on their casino floors.
Johns and Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, co-chaired the task force.
Dwight repeatedly disagreed with critics of the legislation who said it amounted to an expansion of gambling.
He called SB316 a “modernization” of the riverboat casino industry because the boats — which have been dockside since 2001 — still have paddlewheels and are required to have captains aboard.
The House rejected amendment after amendment opposed by the riverboat casino industry, at Dwight’s request. Nearly all Democrats opposed those amendments while Republicans were generally in support — a breakdown reflected in the final vote in favor of the bill as well.
One amendment, pushed by state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, sought to require a boat owner to pay at least $5 million to the state before relocating the vessel. It lost on a 41-49 vote.
Jones said it was foolhardy to approve SB316 without the state conducting an independent study to try to determine its impact.
“What’s the rush?” he asked, echoing complaints about the Harrah’s New Orleans casino bill, a separate measure. “Let’s do a fiscal impact on this and find out if we’re giving the store away.”
State Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, sought to limit the 15 boats to their current figure of a total of 21,223 gaming positions, according to the most recent figures from State Police.
Harris was attempting to revise a provision in SB316 that would allow each of the boats to have 10 percent more gaming positions than the number at the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles, which has the most with 2,152 positions. SB316 would establish a new cap of 2,365 gaming positions per boat.
If each boat expanded to the 2,365 gaming positions, all 15 boats would have 35,475 gaming positions, a 67 percent increase above the 21,223 positions.
“This is simply an amendment to make sure this is not an expansion of gaming or gambling,” Harris said.
The House rejected his amendment 39-54.
State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, offered an amendment that would have required the approval of a parish’s voters before a boat could move ashore. Ivey noted that the parishes where the boats operate approved riverboat gambling. That vote occurred in 1996.
“The people have voted,” Dwight said in opposing the amendment. “They’ve already spoken on this.”
Ivey countered by saying, “I don’t think there’s any harm in letting the people vote. ... The definition of riverboat and gaming floor would be changed.”
His amendment lost 33-61.
“Let me tell you what we’re addicted to. We’re addicted to the juice,” said state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, referring to the casino tax revenue and adding, “Louisiana has the fourth highest incidence of problem gambling in the country.”
Voting for bringing riverboat casinos onshore (53): Speaker Barras, Reps. Anders, Armes, Bagneris, Berthelot, Bishop, Bouie, Brass, T. Brown, Carmody, Carpenter, S. Carter, Coussan, Cox, Davis, Duplessis, Dwight, Foil, Franklin, Gaines, Glover, Guinn, Hall, J. Harris, Havard, Hensgens, Hilferty, Horton, Huval, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, Jordan, T. Landry, Lyons, Magee, Marcelle, Marino, D. Miller, Norton, Pearson, Pierre, Pugh, Reynolds, Schexnayder, Smith, Stagni, Stefanski, Stokes, Talbot, Thibaut, Thomas and Zeringue.
Voting against SB316 (42): Reps. Abraham, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Billiot, G. Carter, R. Carter, Chaney, Connick, Crews, Cromer, DeVillier, Edmonds, Emerson, Falconer, Gisclair, L. Harris, Hazel, Henry, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Howard, Hunter, Ivey, Jackson, Johnson, Jones, N. Landry, Leopold, Mack, McFarland, Miguez, G. Miller, Jim Morris, Muscarello, Pope, Pylant, Richard, Seabaugh, White and Wright.
Not voting (9): Reps. Abramson, C. Brown, Garofalo, Hill, LeBas, Leger, Jay Morris, Shadoin and Simon.