Trying to resolve Louisiana’s ongoing budget crisis is at the heart of the Legislature’s special sessions which begins Monday. One of the potential solutions to balance the state’s budget that will not be discussed until the March 12 regular session is the opportunity to derive more income and create more jobs through an expansion of legalized gaming.
Last month, the Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force made several recommendations that will allow licensed operators to increase profitability and probably employ more workers. They include removing the mandate that calls for riverboats to have an operational paddle wheel and maritime crew and also reconfiguring the size of the gaming floors to accommodate larger slot machines. DiamondJacks Riverboat Casino, now based in Bossier City, is currently contemplating a move to Tangipahoa Parish to attract a new audience.
Getting any kind of gaming approved in Louisiana was a long fight. For many years the House’s Criminal Justice Committee killed all gaming legislation that came its way. Eventually, the need for new jobs and avenues of revenue became great enough that local elected officials, their lobbyists and cooperative legislative leaders were able to slowly push through select pieces of well-crafted legislation.
Louisiana’s gaming laws have barely changed in more than 25 years. With legislators at least re-thinking existing laws, the New Orleans Fairgrounds and Harrah’s Casino will also be submitting bills to benefit their operations. Harrah’s would like to build a second hotel and add restaurants and other amenities to increase their appeal. The Fairgrounds would like to add floor space as well.
Gaming has become one of Louisiana’s largest industries bringing in $960 million to the state’s coffers in 2016. Visiting Harrah’s Casino or one of the fifteen riverboats, buying lottery tickets or playing the slots and video poker machines have all become acceptable forms of recreation for residents and tourists alike. Gaming on cruise ships that board passengers in New Orleans is building the economy as well. Louisiana’s Indian tribes benefit from gaming on their native lands.
Why can’t every parish have the opportunity to maximize the economic benefits gaming could bring to their geographic area? Though it is not currently under discussion, the Legislature could pass a local option bill that would allow every parish to hold an election to increase gaming within their borders. Some parishes would probably relish the opportunity; others would not.
Though Harrah’s would mount a strong fight to hold on to their exclusive arrangement as Louisiana’s premiere land-based casino, New Orleans officials might want to entertain other major operators. Becoming the Las Vegas of the South could have merit.
Providing recreational amenities that would lure more visitors to New Orleans and Louisiana is a much better way of satisfying the state’s financial problems that many of the other options that are currently on the table. It would be much easier to balance the state’s budget with new income from gaming rather than cutting funding for health care, education or infrastructure. Let the dialogue begin.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include District B City Council candidate Seth Bloom and At-Large City Council candidate Helena Moreno.