Bills moving riverboat casinos on land overcome first hurdles at La. capitol

(WAFB) - For more than two decades, Louisiana has kept most of its biggest casinos on the water. A bill at the state capitol could now move them to solid ground.

A law passed in the early 1990s required casinos be housed in riverboats, complete with a paddle wheel and crew.

"The technology in gaming has changed dramatically," said Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lakes Charles.

Johns, who is sponsoring the bill moving them on land, says his legislation is all about keeping up with an evolving industry. A Senate committee gave the bill the thumbs up Tuesday, sending it to the full Senate for debate. Its fate there is anyone's guess.

His bill would allow casinos to be on land so long as they are located within 1,200 feet of the current dock. The bill would also redefine how big those casinos can be, measuring the gambling area not by square feet, but by the number of seats. Johns says the new casino games are much "larger" and more "sophisticated" than the old slot machines.

In committee however, the bill took on a new dimension when some Democrats raised concerns over the diversity in the gaming industry. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, argued they have not hired enough minority workers or contracted with enough minority-owned businesses. A representative for the gaming industry argued it's hard to find those sorts of businesses. That did not sit well with Peterson.

"This is the biggest issue I hear, and it's the biggest joke," Peterson said, arguing there are business groups for African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities in most cities.

The bill also faces push back from religious leaders. They argued in committee the bill would open the door for more gambling in the state, leaving churches to deal with the fallout. "The casino industry and you do not deal with the effects of gambling addiction and pathological gamblers as we do on a daily basis," said David Cranford, pastor at First Baptist Church of Ponchatoula.

The same committee also approved a change that could allow a casino in Bossier City to move to Tangipahoa Parish. California-based company, Peninsula Pacific, owns the Diamond Jacks casino and wants to move it to a location along the Tangipahoa River. A representative of Peninsula Pacific argued the new location would allow them to attract more customers in an under-served area of the state, possibly even catching people heading to Mississippi to gamble.

The move could bring a new hotel, restaurant, and potentially 500 jobs to the Tangipahoa area.

The governor says he will sign the measure if it lands on his desk. It still has to get off the Senate floor and through the House. Even if it becomes law, the move is not a done deal. The bill calls for a referendum vote, meaning the people of Tangipahoa Parish will then get to vote on whether or not to allow the casino to move there.

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